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Single-stream recyclables are pictured in a nearly full Boulder County Recycling Center bin on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

State Sen. Kevin Priola had his recycling epiphany while staring at an empty pizza box. 

The grease stains on the lid spelled it out for the Henderson Republican: Colorado recycles only about 15% of its waste because recycling is too hard. Even a dedicated recycler like Priola was surprised to learn that cardboard with food stains is not welcome in the paper bin. 

He’s learned to rip the post-pepperoni top off the pizza box and recycle the rest. And Priola’s doubled down on recycling by being a co-prime sponsor on one of the most ambitious recent attempts at improving Colorado’s abysmal recycling rates.

Priola and two Democrats are leading the “Producers Responsibility” bill in the legislature, which would require the companies whose brand is on the packaging to charge themselves a fee to fund improved local recycling services across Colorado. 

Cities or counties without their own recycling services could take the fees to start up a program. Places like Denver or Boulder who run or contract for extensive recycling could use the fees to expand — many apartment dwellers don’t get recycling services, for example. Or they could turn recycling programs over to nonprofits and private companies likely to enter the market. 

Giving recycling access to all Colorado consumers and making the sort-and-return systems easier to use would cut deeply into trash across the state, Priola said. 

“If you can get 60, 70, 80% of the people to start doing the right thing, that’ll mean less resources being wasted. Less water being wasted. Less air pollution. A more vibrant local economy,” he said.

One reason a Republican like Priola got on board was the effort to be business-friendly: Recycling advocates say a steadier stream of packaging materials like aluminum, glass and cardboard will eventually ease the supply chain woes and inflation plaguing many American companies

Also, the businesses creating and delivering packaging are in charge of the proposed program. House Bill 1355 would create an industry council to study how much money is needed for a statewide recycling plan, and would let the council set the rates needed to raise that money. 

“So many of these businesses are getting hit with real disruptions in their ability to get materials, which is directly connected to the fact that we’re throwing so many materials away,” said Kate Bailey, research and policy director at the nonprofit recycler Eco-Cycle. 

Businesses who use lots of packaging have gone along with similar programs in Canada and a couple of U.S. states, Bailey said, proving a comprehensive, producer-funded system can work. Businesses with less than $5 million in revenue will be exempt. And closer to home, Bailey said, putting all paint recycling in Colorado under a similar dues-funded nonprofit called Paint Care has increased paint recycling while saving local governments money. 

It’s possible the bill is a no-hoper this late in a session already crammed with complex issues like how to refund surplus revenue to taxpayers and how to regulate toxic emissions. Advocates, including cities such as Westminster and nonprofits like Eco-Cycle and CoPIRG, expect more opposition from small to medium businesses worried about costs and bureaucracy than from giants like Coca-Cola and Molson Coors. 

And Gov. Jared Polis has been wary of increasing costs for Colorado residents and businesses given recent inflation pressure.

“It will not be a noticeable price increase to consumers,” Priola said in introducing the bill, along with co-prime sponsors Rep. Lisa Cutter, D-Morrison, and Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver. Advocates say the dues usually amount to fractions of a penny for each package and result in steep increases in recycling.  Bailey said average dues in similar Canadian programs are three cents per pound for aluminum cans, with a pound of aluminum making about 30 cans.

Hearings starting Thursday are likely to be packed with both supporters and business representatives concerned about the potential requirements. 

Local governments also plan to raise voices on the bill, many of them in support of a more robust state recycling effort. 

“In Clear Creek County and other rural parts of the state, higher costs for recycling services and transportation are forcing hard decisions,” said George Marlin, a Clear Creek County Commissioner and president of Colorado Communities for Climate Action. “Why should communities have to choose between housing, child care and recycling, when so much of the business community wants to be part of the solution?”

The bill “makes recycling as easy to access as trash pickup,” said Jefferson County Commissioner Andy Kerr. Including those who produce and deliver the packaging, he said, ties the cost of recycling back to the original materials. “My constituents across the county want to have good recycling options.” 

The Colorado Sun —

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Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage.

A Colorado College graduate, Jesse worked at The Denver Post from June 2014 until July 2018, when he joined The Sun. He was also an intern at The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.

Jesse has won awards for long form feature writing, public service reporting, sustained coverage and deadline news reporting.

Email: Twitter: @jesseapaul

Michael Booth is the Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of the Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He is co-author with Jennifer Brown of the Colorado Book Award-winning food safety investigation “Eating Dangerously.” Booth was part of teams that won two Pulitzer Prizes for breaking news. He also writes frequently about inexplicable obsessions that include tamarisk, black-footed ferrets and tire fires. Booth also serves as the underpaid driver for four children, and plans to eventually hike every inch of Colorado.