Our wonderful state of Colorado is filled with snow-covered peaks, rushing rivers, hiking trails filled with eager outdoor enthusiasts, and . . . some of the lowest recycling rates in the nation. 

Erica Sparhawk, left, and Kendra Black

Yes, counter to our green reputation, Coloradans recycle only 15% of our waste, less than half the national rate of 32%, and far below our state’s own goals. In 2020, we buried in landfills 5.8 million tons of recyclable materials – bottles, cans, plastic jugs, newspaper and cardboard – which could have instead been sold for $100 million as valuable feedstock to make new products. 

Even in communities that have experienced some meaningful recycling success, such as the urban Denver and rural Carbondale communities we represent, the barriers to increasing recycling are real and substantial. This is a statewide problem, in other words, and even the most ambitious local efforts won’t be enough to solve it.

Colorado’s recycling system is underdeveloped and underfunded, with inadequate infrastructure for collecting and processing materials, and inconsistent policies and programs that local communities and residents struggle to pay for. This challenge is even more pronounced in rural areas, separated from Front Range recycling markets by long miles and often many mountain passes. And we are losing ground: Colorado’s already low recycling rate has stagnated and is barely keeping up with population growth.

Recycling is most successful when residents are automatically provided with a recycling cart, have universal pick-up, are incentivized to divert waste from the landfill and have the education and awareness to support that behavior change. Unfortunately, this is a rarity for much of Colorado, with fewer than half of our larger cities providing curbside recycling for all households.

Most residents in the state have to sign up and pay extra for recycling, leading to poor participation and inequitable access. If you live in an apartment building in Denver or a small town on the West Slope, for instance, chances are you are being left behind.

Consequently, we are burying money in the ground and forsaking valuable jobs. Even with Colorado’s low diversion rate, recycling, reusing, and remanufacturing provide more than 86,000 jobs – nine times more jobs than landfills — and in 2014 was generating more than $8.7 billion in economic benefits annually. Imagine the benefits if we increased our recycling rate to the national average or better!

Clearly, we need a better way to economically provide access and expand recycling to all Colorado residents so more of these valuable materials are recycled instead of landfilled. After years of incremental steps, we need systemic change. 

As local officials, we believe this transformative solution is “Producer Responsibility,” a policy approach established some 20 years ago by 40 other countries, including Canada, that was recently adopted by Maine and Oregon. A similar bill could be introduced in the Colorado General Assembly soon. 

Producer Responsibility obligates consumer brands such as Coca Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Mars and Unilever to take responsibility for the full life cycle of the packaging and printed paper they produce, by paying for the system that collects and recycles it. Instead of residents and local governments paying for recycling programs, these producers would pay fractions of a penny for each bottle, can, plastic pouch, or box they use to sell their products, and these funds would pay to expand and maintain recycling services across the entire state that are as convenient as trash service or better.

Requiring producers to cover the life cost of their packaging also incentivizes them to reduce the unnecessary stuff — like single-use disposable plastics that litter our creeks and fill our landfills. Producer Responsibility also would create an incentive for producers to establish a statewide list of materials that would be recyclable across all of Colorado, which would reduce confusion and increase participation.

How will a policy like Producer Responsibility benefit Colorado? It will increase and enhance recycling by providing free recycling to all Colorado residents. It will build up Colorado business by creating a supply of raw materials right here in Colorado.

It will invigorate Colorado’s manufacturing economy. It will reduce climate pollution by taking easily recycled products out of the landfill. It will save money for local governments and Colorado residents by offering recycling services at no cost to Coloradans. It will reduce plastic pollution.

And, finally, it will increase equity in recycling, offering recycling services not just in areas that can afford to pay for it.

Simply put, Producer Responsibility would provide a more efficient and affordable recycling system that expands recycling access and equity, allows us to hit our sustainability goals and cut climate pollution, provides a steady supply chain of recyclable materials for Colorado remanufacturers, and creates more local jobs.  

Please support this transformative step forward that would benefit all of Colorado!

Erica Sparhawk, of Carbondale, is a member of the Town of Carbondale Board of Trustees. Kendra Black, of Denver, represents District 4 on the Denver City Council.

The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to opinion@coloradosun.com. (Learn more about how to submit a column.)

Read more opinion. Follow Colorado Sun Opinion on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.