Denver voters appear poised to approve a major expansion of recycling that seemed so popular early on even opponents of Ordinance 306 are stepping out of the way and saying, “Good luck with that.”
People living in single-family homes in Denver get trash, recycling and compost picked up by city employees. But those living in apartment buildings of more than a few units get their services from the landlords, and many choose not to offer recycling. That quirk affects more than 100,000 people, recycling proponents say.
The Waste No More measure, on the Denver ballot as proposed Ordinance 306, would phase in mandatory recycling and composting at larger apartment buildings, restaurants and other businesses and construction sites that generate huge volumes of waste. It would kick in at apartment buildings over 75 units, and gradually move to include all apartments with eight or more units.
Proponents hope it will boost Colorado’s overall abysmal recycling and composting rates, which lag the national average despite many residents’ self-image as an environmentally conscious state.
“It’s wildly popular and our opposition has dissipated, and I’m feeling very, very confident,” said campaign co-leader Ean Tafoya of Colorado GreenLatinos, who is also running in the Denver mayoral race next spring.
Part of the motivation came from earlier campaigns, including the successful 2020 push for Denver’s climate-related sales tax, Tafoya said. People said they were for more climate change spending, but noted they couldn’t even recycle from their own apartment, he said.
And indeed, Colorado’s apartment trade groups have said they know when not to go all in against a winner.
“It’s silly to incur the wrath of being opposed,” said Drew Hamrick of the Colorado Apartment Association, which participated in a poll on the issues and decided not to back any “no” campaign. “No amount of education” was going to change that, he added.
“But that doesn’t mean there’s not problems,” Hamrick added. Challenges will include costs being passed on to renters, little room for carrying out recycling at many buildings, and a big jump in composting with few companies providing the service.
In addition to potentially boosting Denver recycling rates and removing waste from the system that damages the environment and climate, proponents see the Denver apartment recycling measure as “low-hanging fruit” for environmental justice. Many of Denver’s low-income residents live in multifamily units that don’t have access to recycling or composting.
Denver, meanwhile, spent a significant portion of 2022 overhauling trash, recycling and composting for single-family homes where it provides city services.
Denver’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency says the city’s rate of keeping waste out of the landfill is about 26%, compared to a national average of about 34%. Statewide, recycling advocates say the rate is even worse at 15%, and they helped push a law in the 2022 legislature to require consumer products makers to fund expanded statewide recycling programs.
Waste buried in landfills deteriorates and creates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that accelerates climate change. Recycling advocates also say that reusing materials from aluminum to glass to cardboard uses less energy to create new products than making the items from raw materials. They argue that relatively isolated states like Colorado need help creating the industrial-scale collection and recycling of packaging materials to create a sustainable reuse economy. Colorado’s largest recycling advocacy groups are backing the Denver Waste No More initiative.
The Denver single-family reform charges for volume of waste starting in 2023. The largest trash bin will now cost $21 a month, for a service previously part of other city spending. Recycling will be free, as will be bins for composting. Current composters have to pay $9.75 a month for the green bin. Denver will also pick up recycling every week instead of every two weeks, to handle extra volume, though skeptics have said the city is already having trouble finding drivers for current service levels.
The Colorado Restaurant Association is neutral on the ordinance, said communications director Denise Mickelsen. The group does “appreciate the overarching goals of the initiative,” she said.
The apartment trade group is more specific in its criticism, even while noting that many people want improved recycling. The statewide groups said its surveys have shown about 80% of residents in larger buildings already have access to recycling.
“Most consumers like recycling, and we’re in the business of trying to give our residential customers the services they want,” Hamrick, of the apartment association, said. “The real problem was the absolutely naive and silly requirements.”
Older apartment buildings of a couple dozen units in places like Denver’s Capitol Hill don’t have extra space planned for staging recycling bins and getting them picked up, he noted. The composting requirement is not only “silly” — imagine wet and smelly food waste from hundreds of apartments sitting outside a building — but a potential public health hazard, he added. Nor are there many haulers offering apartment compost stops, he said.
“This ordinance crams down this flawed system on the private sector as well,” Hamrick said.
Private apartment operators sometimes offer recycling as part of the rent, or could tack on an extra fee. Either way, Hamrick said, the new costs of the ordinance will end up in higher rents for consumers at all income levels.
The ordinance also fails to solve one of the biggest current recycling issues, he said. Denver allows all recyclables in one bin, but there is little international market for used plastic. Unrecyclable plastics and mixed in garbage raise costs for the separators and some threaten to drop routes if contamination is chronic.
Every week, reporters Michael Booth and John Ingold dive into climate and health, putting a special emphasis on where they intersect.
“When you put a bin out to be used by the public you don’t have much control without a little bit of contamination. And it makes the product not very valuable,” Hamrick said.
Ordinance supporters say more haulers will compete once they see the mandates creating new business all over town, including in composting services.
Tafoya said the staggered implementation will give a task force time to work out rules and details to address more concerns.
Residents are already paying hauling fees through their trash service, Tafoya said. The ordinance will push that existing spending toward creating healthier recycling markets.
“It’s not simple math, saying this is going to add up to some more,” he said. “It’s just about redirecting where you’re sending the waste.”