Polis, Hancock Pledge to Improve Colorado's Lousy Recycling Rate

Chase Woodruff
"Captain Zero Waste" celebrated the end of Colorado Recycles Week at a press conference at the State Capitol.
Recycling in Colorado is “inching forward” thanks to policy changes and new community programs, a new report finds. But we're still far more wasteful than the national average, and state and local leaders acknowledged at an event marking the end of the first-ever Colorado Recycles Week that larger strides will require more than just a few minor tweaks.

“There’s a lot of things that we of course need to do in our daily lives to promote reuse and recycling,” Governor Jared Polis said at a press conference at the State Capitol on Friday, November 15. “But in addition to those small adjustments, it’s important that we have a conversation about state infrastructure and making sure that there’s more opportunities for recycling in more communities across our state.”

"We must get better," said Mayor Michael Hancock. "We want to make sure we send a clarion call to all the residents in Denver, the metro area and throughout the state: We need to be bolder."

While Coloradans love to think of themselves as eco-conscious, the truth is we lag far behind many of our neighbors when it comes to recycling, composting and other forms of waste diversion. Overall, Colorado diverted just 17.2 percent of its municipal solid waste (MSW) from landfills in 2018, according to state data. In their annual report on the State of Recycling in Colorado, advocates with the Colorado Public Interest Research Group and Boulder-based nonprofit Eco-Cycle say that's not nearly good enough.

”Colorado continues to be one of the worst states at recycling and one of the most wasteful states in the country,” wrote the authors of the report, which was released this week. “We need to increase access to convenient recycling and composting programs, particularly along the Front Range, and we need to attract more businesses to Colorado to use our recyclable and compostable materials.”

Colorado's low recycling rate can be blamed in part on the state's low "tip fees," the per-ton costs that landfills charge to dispose of waste; even along the fast-growing Front Range, there's plenty of room left in Colorado landfills, and relatively little economic incentive to do anything with waste but dump and bury it. But advocates also say that state and local governments haven't done enough to invest in programs and infrastructure that help facilitate recycling — and they hope that's changing.

Last month, state lawmakers advanced two bills aimed at improving Colorado’s diversion rate. The Zero Waste and Recycling Interim Study Committee, chaired by Democratic State Representative Lisa Cutter, gave preliminary approval to legislation to help develop recycling “end markets” — i.e., attracting businesses that buy and use recyclable material — along with a bill designed to boost composting.

In their report, Eco-Cycle and CoPIRG also urged local governments to provide curbside recycling to all residents — and to make sure that the service is bundled with trash pickup rather than offered separately. Currently, only three of Colorado's ten largest municipalities provide curbside recycling to all residents, though two more, Lakewood and Arvada, are working to implement it.

Colorado has just two years to dramatically improve its recycling and composting rates if it hopes to meet its stated goal of a 28 percent diversion rate by 2021. Activists stress that one of the most effective ways to make progress toward that goal is for Coloradans to not only divert more waste from landfills, but to produce less waste, period.

"We must disentangle ourselves from the single-use mindset that has led us down the path of believing it's fine to make products, use them once and then bury them in the earth," Marlon Reis, Colorado's first gentleman and a recycling advocate, said at Friday's event.

“While recycling is part of the solution, there’s no way to recycle our way out of the plastic waste crisis,” Randy Moorman, Eco-Cycle’s community campaigns director, said in a statement this week. “It’s time to take action on a state and local level to eliminate these plastics, especially single-use disposable plastics, and replace them with safer, readily available and more sustainable alternatives.”

To that end, lawmakers at the Capitol are also crafting a bill that would repeal a 1993 preemption law that bars local governments from regulating the sale of certain plastics, clearing a path for municipalities to impose bans on single-use plastics like straws or grocery bags. Denver City Council, led by Councilwoman Kendra Black, is considering an ordinance that would impose a ten-cent fee on plastic and paper bags.

"We've started conversations with our city council to partner on a plan to significantly reduce the number of single-use plastic and paper bags that end up in our landfills, waterways and waste system," Hancock said Friday. "And we will be coming forward very soon with a new ordinance that will allow us to address that in a bold fashion."