Fifth annual report finds Colorado’s abysmal recycling rate requires major shift in how we support recycling

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Despite poor statewide rate, Colorado municipalities Loveland, Boulder, Longmont, Fort Collins, Durango excel locally

CoPIRG and Eco-Cycle

DENVER – In their fifth annual State of Recycling & Composting in Colorado Report, Eco-Cycle and CoPIRG found Colorado’s 2020 waste diversion rate of 15.3% has failed to improve over the last few years and remains well below the national average of 32% and the over 50% rate that leading Colorado cities currently achieve. In 2020, Coloradans buried over 5.9 million tons of materials in the state’s landfills that could have been reintroduced into our economy as materials for manufacturing and as compost to rebuild our soils.

Despite the lack of statewide progress, the report highlighted that cities and towns like Loveland, Boulder, Longmont, Fort Collins, Aspen and Durango have consistently maintained high recycling and composting rates by using proven strategies such as providing easy, curbside access to divert waste away from landfills, using volume-based pricing, running robust education programs and dedicating staff and funding to waste diversion.

This diversion helps create green jobs, reduces the destruction of natural resources used for manufacturing and lowers greenhouse gas emissions. For example, in 2020, recycling and composting in Colorado reduced carbon pollution equivalent to taking 400,000 cars off road each year. If our diversion rate were at the state’s 2021 goal of 28%, we would reduce carbon emissions equivalent to taking nearly 750,000 cars off the road annually.

In order to make significant progress toward improving Colorado’s dismal recycling rate, Eco-Cycle and CoPIRG recommended the state pursue a Producer Responsibility policy for containers, packaging and printed paper that could eliminate unnecessary packaging and expand resources and support for recycling.

“While a handful of cities and towns continue to lead the way, Colorado’s bottom-of-the-barrel recycling rate is an embarrassment,” stated Suzanne Jones, Executive Director of Eco-Cycle. “Our 15% state diversion rate means we aren’t providing equitable access to recycling services for residents across the state and instead are burying millions of dollars of recyclables and hundreds of green jobs in the landfill each year. It’s time to transform our recycling system to benefit our people, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, and generate profit.”

“Too often as consumers we can’t avoid the unnecessary packaging that comes with our products,” said Danny Katz, Executive Director of CoPIRG. “Ensuring producers take on financial responsibility for the boxes, containers, bottles and packaging they send us will result in less stuff to begin with and the stuff we do get will be more likely to actually get recycled. A more universal recycling system statewide would be better for consumers and better for the planet.”

Despite the stagnant statewide recycling rate, Colorado has taken a number of recent steps that help create a foundation to reduce waste and recycle more. 

  • In 2021, Colorado passed a landmark plastic pollution reduction policy to phase out single-use plastic bags and polystyrene takeout containers, as well as allow cities and counties to do even more to reduce plastic pollution. 
  • Local actions include Durango and Golden adding curbside composting to their community-wide trash and recycling services, and Arvada launching a new citywide curbside recycling program in July 2021, becoming the largest city in Colorado to contract for a universal recycling program. Johnstown also launched curbside recycling for all residents.

Nonetheless, Colorado is far off track to meet its 2021 recycling and composting goal of 28%. Eco-Cycle and CoPIRG recommended a number of state and local actions to accelerate  Colorado’s recycling, but the single biggest action they highlighted was for Colorado to establish a statewide Producer Responsibility system.

Under a Producer Responsibility system, companies pay into a fund based on the packaging around their products, whether that packaging is cans, bottles, boxes, containers, shrink wrap or other material. The dues paid would fund an expansion of recycling infrastructure so that everyone in Colorado would have easy access to recycling at no additional cost to them or taxpayers. The fund would be administered by a new nonprofit association made up of the companies that pay into the system. 

For example, a company that makes a tube of toothpaste would become a member of this new nonprofit and would pay dues on all of their product’s packaging including the tube, the cardboard box that the tube comes in, and the plastic wrap that goes around the box.

The dues would not only expand recycling access and infrastructure in Colorado, but would provide an incentive for companies to cut out some of the unnecessary packaging that wraps their items, thereby significantly improving Colorado’s recycling rate and reducing plastic pollution.

This kind of Producer Responsibility system is already in place in Colorado for paint. The system is called the Colorado Paint Stewardship Program, run by PaintCare, which funds a network of 186 year-round drop-off sites collecting and recycling approximately 4.3 million gallons of paint annually at no cost to taxpayers. 

Benefits from a Producer Responsibility system include:

  • Money and resources to pay for convenient access to recycling for Colorado residents and small businesses in urban, suburban, and rural areas as well as Coloradans who live in multi-family units.
  • Less unnecessary packaging that can’t be recycled, such as single-use plastics. 
  • Lower costs for local governments to provide recycling.
  • More higher quality recyclable materials for businesses to incorporate into their products to boost recycled content.
  • Minimum statewide standards for what is recyclable so consumers are less frustrated when trying to answer the question – can I recycle this?
  • A reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Recycling and composting are some of the most cost-effective climate solutions that can be readily adopted at the local and state levels. For every one ton of materials we recycle, we save nearly three tons of carbon emissions.
  • Local economic benefits. Recycling creates nine times more jobs than landfills per ton of material. Increased recycling also means more money returned to our economy. The recyclable materials Colorado landfills every year could have been sold for over $100 million in commodity value. These materials are valuable assets which could be sold for profit instead of buried in the ground.

You can download the report here