Lawmakers in Denver have advanced a bill to the Governor’s desk that would effectively shift the costs of recycling from local government to manufacturers, distributors, and everyday consumers.
House Bill 22-1355, more commonly known as extended producer responsibility, or EPR, is not the right policy approach to bolster Colorado’s recycling efforts. We urge Gov. Polis to veto the measure and instead focus on addressing underlying systemic issues to boost the state’s recycling programs.
While policies that curb pollution and strengthen our recycling infrastructure are vital, these recycling regulations are misguided in their effort to improve recycling rates. EPR seeks to group disparate materials under a single regulatory umbrella without regard for those materials’ individual recycling systems and needs. By pursuing a one-size-fits-all strategy, Colorado lawmakers and Gov. Polis ultimately could harm the state’s paper recycling accomplishments.
Policymakers instead should uphold the paper industry as a model for other materials with lower recycling rates, improve recycling education programs and guidance to better inform its citizens, and work to address systemic recycling infrastructure issues unique to Colorado to improve the state’s overall recycling performance.
Nationally, the paper industry recycles nearly 50 million tons of recovered paper every year – totaling more than one billion tons over the past two decades. In fact, the nationwide recycling rate for paper has met or exceeded 63% every year since 2009. And cardboard, the material most likely impacted by EPR legislation, boasts a national recovery rate of 89%. These are robust recycling achievements that EPR policies are unlikely to improve.
Paper recycling is a clear success in Colorado, thanks, in part, to our industry’s efforts. According to data determined internally by the American Forest & Paper Association, nearly 50% of Colorado residents have access to curbside recycling, while an additional 61% have drop-off access.
The paper industry is a responsible producer, committed to sustainability, with an investment rate of about $5 billion by 2024 (the linked document says 2023, but the association has extended it to 2024) to continue the best use of recycled fiber in our products. This contribution, totaling roughly $2.5 million per day in investments, will increase our capacity to use recycled fibers by approximately 8 million tons, a nearly 25% increase over 2020 levels. The EPR legislation now on Gov. Polis’ desk inadvertently could undermine paper recycling’s success in Colorado.
Enhanced educational programs and institutional guidance are critical tools for improving recycling rates. For instance, commentary about EPR in Colorado has at times centered on the recyclability of pizza boxes and the suggestion that greasy boxes are not suitable for recycling. Some localities, like Fort Collins, offer confusing guidance on the issue: “Pizza Boxes that are not significantly soiled with food waste can be recycled in your curbside bin.”
The guidance should be clearer. What we have found is that cardboard pizza boxes are successfully recycled every day at paper mills throughout the country. In a recent membership-wide survey, American Forest & Paper Association members said they accept cardboard pizza boxes for recycling, and that leftover grease and cheese are not an issue for the recycling process.
U.S. recycling programs are stewarded by local governments. As such, it is vital that these municipalities focus on enhancing education and access within their areas of jurisdiction. EPR policies may not address these critical underlying issues.
Finally, supporters of Colorado’s EPR bill suggest that highly centralized recycling programs in Canada and Europe prove that the state will reap benefits under a similar system. The evidence, however, suggests otherwise. A 2021 study by York University in Ontario did not find evidence that the steward operated EPR program in Canada resulted in cost containment or increased recycling performance.
Producer responsibility is something our industry does on a voluntary and market-driven basis. But the EPR bill approved by state lawmakers would only hinder Colorado’s paper recycling success. We urge Gov. Polis to look to the paper industry as a model for successful statewide recycling and consider other, more productive ways to improve Colorado’s recycling infrastructure, boost recycling rates, and shrink municipal waste streams.
Terry Webber is vice president of industry affairs for the American Forest & Paper Association in Washington, D.C.
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