Reduce, Reuse, Recycle . . . we’ve likely all heard of the “3 R’s,” foundational to a Zero Waste, environmentally sustainable future. It would be reasonable to assume the 3 R’s would be second nature in Colorado, given our love for the state’s natural beauty, its parks and open spaces, mountains, rivers, and wildlife. But, surprisingly, the state of Colorado has a lot of work to do when it comes to reducing, reusing, recycling, and composting our waste stream.
Colorado’s recycling and composting rate continues to stagnate at a mere 16%, half the national average of 32%.
To turn the tide, we can’t rely solely on individual efforts. It’s time for systemic change statewide—a shift necessary to prevent waste right across our economy.
Reduce and reuse are on the rise
The negative impacts of all of our stuff begins long before it reaches our homes. From natural resource extraction to disposal, the entire life cycle of the products we consume creates pollution and climate-warming greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
There are growing efforts across Colorado to reduce the overall materials that are created for our consumption and use, and are then discarded—particularly the reduction of single-use or disposable products and packaging — helping to keep us from drowning in the flood of often unnecessary disposable stuff that comes wrapped, packed, and tied to what we buy. Reuse, too, is on the rise as a systems replacement for single-use products of all kinds—even recyclables and compostables.
Big change is also coming for recycling and composting
Systemic change is coming with regard to that third R, recycling. Six years of reporting on Colorado’s consistently low recycling rate has gotten the attention of the public and of state and local decision-makers, resulting in new programs and policy changes statewide that will ensure that more cans, bottles, boxes, and packaging will be returned to our local supply chains for remanufacturing and that all Coloradans have convenient access to recycling at free of charge.
There is still a lot of work ahead in implementing these policies successfully, and our future reports will continue to track that progress.
The third R also refers to recycling organics through composting. Communities statewide are increasingly eager to initiate or expand compost programs in recognition of the critical importance of diverting organics from landfills to reduce landfill-generated methane emissions and of utilizing compost to enrich local soils and increase their carbon sequestering impact.
This surge in public interest has brought both challenges and opportunities, supporting growth for Colorado’s entrepreneurial compost businesses, and revealing valuable lessons about necessary infrastructure and policies to scale up access to compost services and the making of quality compost for agricultural use.
The R's: Key concepts to embrace as we move to a zero waste future
Reduce the need for a product or its packaging in the first place. This R is the highest priority in the Zero Waste hierarchy. If we don’t make a product, we don’t need to extract natural resources and can avoid the associated negative environmental and social impacts.
Redesign products to use fewer resources, few-to-no toxins, and higher recycled content. Design should prioritize longevity of use, repair, and ultimately recycling.
Reuse already extracted resources, keeping materials and products in circulation for as long as possible. Establishing reuse systems can help eliminate the need for single-use items.
Refill reusable containers. Rather than using single-use items (even those that are recyclable or compostable), durable, reusable containers are refilled for everything from condiments and milk in schools to reuse/refill to-go containers at restaurants and returnable/washable containers at reuse/refill stores.
Repair products and keep them in use. For some products, this requires changing systems to guarantee the right to repair products.
Recycle transparently and authentically, capturing products at the end of their useful lives and turning these materials into new products that can be recycled yet again. Composting is essentially the recycling of organic matter, including food scraps and yard trimmings.
State and local actions in Colorado could make us a zero waste leader
There are a number of ways the state and local communities are leading the way toward less waste and fostering a circular economy.
Colorado’s Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, which will phase out single-use plastic bags and polystyrene cups and containers, and Colorado’s Agriculture Right to Repair bill, which ensure farmers have access to the tools, parts, and software they need to fix their equipment, go into effect on January 1, 2024.
- Colorado is the only non-coastal state to have banned single-use plastic bags and polystyrene containers as of January 1, 2024.
- Aspen city officials reported an 80%-90% reduction in straws used at restaurants that participated in a program that switched from automatically giving people straws to waiting for a customer to ask.
- A number of Colorado municipalities are reducing single-use water bottles by providing better access to refill water stations, including updating plumbing codes. The Town of Breckenridge also provides a map of refill stations in the town and purchased mobile refill stations for events.
- With support from a state grant, Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) has adopted food waste reduction practice including tracking food waste with Leanpath in district food preparation kitchens.
- Colorado is a national leader in ensuring residents and businesses have the Right to Repair their stuff. Colorado is the only state that has adopted two Right to Repair policies – one for powered wheelchairs and one for agricultural equipment.
- Denver launched an incentive program funding 35 food establishments to switch to reusable serviceware for on-site dining and is offering up to $2,500 to help permitted events transition to reusable cups.
- Breckenridge Grand Vacations (BGV) is a family-owned company in Breckenridge with three
resorts, one hotel, and two offices. BGV voluntarily switched from single-use personal care bottles to bulk refill across all properties (over 800 units, two spa areas, and multiple locker rooms) in 2018. BGV’s bottom-line savings estimate: about 40% less cost and over half a million avoided little amenity bottles annually.
- Music producer AEG Presents adopted r.World’s reusable cup services at Denver-area venues and saw tremendous environmental benefits to transitioning from single-use to reusable cups at scale in the first year. Together with DeliverZero, which offers participating restaurant customers the option to take out foods in reusable containers that are returned to the store to be cleaned and reused, have avoided more than 13,000 pounds of waste to landfills, saved over 325,000 gallons of water, and avoided over 46,000 kgCO2e of GHG emissions (the equivalent of over 5,000 gallons of gasoline).
Recycling and Composting
- Colorado was the third state to adopt a nation-leading Producer Responsibility policy for packaging and paper recycling and is ahead of other states in implementation. The program requires producers of paper and packaging (cans, jars, boxes, etc.) who sell these products in Colorado to take responsibility for the end-of-life of these materials by funding recycling services for all Colorado residents, including those with historically limited access such as people living in apartments and rural areas, and reimburse local governments that already run these programs. It will also provide Coloradans with a clear list of materials that can be recycled statewide.
- Colorado also adopted a nation-leading bill to reduce contamination in compost streams by clarifying labeling of certified compostable and look-alike “compostable” packaging (SB23-253).
- Cities such as Longmont, Steamboat Springs, and Denver have adopted policies to expand recycling and composting services to businesses and multifamily complexes. Denver is about to implement its voter-approved Waste No More initiative, requiring recycling and composting to be offered at apartment complexes, businesses, and permitted events, and requiring recycling at construction and demolition sites.
- Denver and Glenwood Springs switched to Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) trash fees, incentivizing residents to reduce the amount of material they send to the landfill by charging more for larger trash bins and providing recycle and compost collections at no additional charge. In the first half of 2023, Denver saw a 13% increase in recycling, a 10% increase in compost, and a 4% decrease in landfill tonnage compared to the same period in 2022.
- Across Colorado, communities are increasing access to organics diversion programs.
- The Town of Eagle is adding curbside compost collections
- Grand Junction is piloting seasonal curbside yard trimming collections and restaurant food scrap collections
- Englewood added an organics drop-off site at their recreation center
- Loveland added sod collections to their recycling drop-off site and partnered with a local landscaping company to process and reuse the resulting top soil
- Aspen has become the first municipality in Colorado to ban organic materials from their local landfill. Starting October 15, 2023, all businesses with a retail food license in the city limits must comply by donating edible food and sending non-edible food to be composted at the nearby Pitkin County compost facility
Previous editions of the reort
State of Recycling and Composting 2022
State of Recycling and Composting 2021
State of Recycling and Composting 2020
State of Recycling and Composting 2019
State of Recycling and Composting 2018
State of Recycling and Composting 2017
Executive Director, CoPIRG Foundation
Danny has been the director of CoPIRG for over a decade. Danny co-authored a groundbreaking report on the state’s transit, walking and biking needs and is a co-author of the annual “State of Recycling” report. He also helped write a 2016 Denver initiative to create a public matching campaign finance program and led the early effort to eliminate predatory payday loans in Colorado. Danny serves on the Colorado Department of Transportation's (CDOT) Efficiency and Accountability Committee, CDOT's Transit and Rail Advisory Committee, RTD's Reimagine Advisory Committee, the Denver Moves Everyone Think Tank, and the I-70 Collaborative Effort. Danny lobbies federal, state and local elected officials on transportation electrification, multimodal transportation, zero waste, consumer protection and public health issues. He appears frequently in local media outlets and is active in a number of coalitions. He resides in Denver with his family, where he enjoys biking and skiing, the neighborhood food scene and raising chickens.
Senior Policy and Research Associate, Eco-Cycle
Campaigns Coordinator, Eco-Cycle