A special panel of Colorado lawmakers began meeting earlier this year to come up with ideas to improve the state’s dismal recycling rate — and after months of hearings, facility tours and public testimony on the ins and outs of industry acronyms like MSW, MRFs, PETs and HDPEs, there’s one thing they understand very clearly.
“This is such a complicated issue,” says Representative Lisa Cutter, a Democrat from Evergreen and the chair of the Zero Waste and Recycling Interim Study Committee. “We’ve got a long way to go in Colorado, but that means there’s room for us to do some good work.”
Cutter and her fellow committee members voted today, October 22, to approve two draft bills aimed at improving Colorado’s recycling rate, which lags far behind the national average. The 5.8 million tons of waste that Coloradans dump into landfills every year amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars of lost recyclable material, state officials say, and leads to negative impacts on Colorado’s environment and the climate.
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“Our state’s low recycling rate means we rely heavily on landfills, which can harm our environment and will leave a lasting impact on the natural beauty that in many ways defines our state,” Representative Meg Froelich, a Democrat from Englewood, said in a statement. “Our legislation will reduce waste by helping create new markets for recycled materials, establishing a public education campaign on recycling and increasing compost use in agriculture and other sectors.”
Interim committees, which meet in the intervals between the legislature’s four-month regular sessions, allow lawmakers to study issues in greater depth and recommend legislation to be considered during the following session. Cutter, a first-year lawmaker who unsuccessfully championed a zero-waste bill during the 2019 regular session, won approval for the ten-member interim committee in April.
Despite its environmentally friendly self-image, Colorado lags far behind most other states when it comes to its recycling rate — or, more accurately, its “diversion rate,” a term that includes both recycling and composting processes. At the consumer level, Coloradans recycled or composted just 17.2 percent of the municipal solid waste (MSW) they generated in 2018, less than half the national average of 35 percent.
Among the key factors driving the state’s poor performance: It doesn’t cost much to throw away trash in Colorado. Compared to other places around the country, most of the landfills where Coloradans’ trash ends up have plenty of room to spare and are able to charge relatively low fees for disposal. With less economic incentive to recycle, Colorado hasn’t developed much of a recycling industry, and a top priority for Cutter and other lawmakers has been to change that by fostering “end markets” for recyclable materials — in other words, connect what’s thrown out by Coloradans with businesses that can put it to use.
“Our infrastructure is really the biggest problem,” Cutter says. “That’s why I was so supportive of the end markets [bill]. There’s more that we could do, for sure, but I think that tries to get at the problem.”
The first of the two bills advanced by lawmakers today takes a variety of steps to better establish end markets and incentivize recycling firms to do business in the state. Randy Moorman, director of community campaigns for Eco-Cycle, a Boulder-based recycling nonprofit, points to the case of Momentum Recycling, which opened a glass-recycling facility in Broomfield in 2017.
“Before Momentum came, most glass that was collected on the Front Range was ending up in the landfill,” says Moorman. “But they’ve really revolutionized how we handle glass in the state. Momentum takes the glass, processes it, cleans it up, and sends it to our two bottlers, so we’re able to close that loop. And that’s what we want to see happen on different levels within the state.”
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Waste management also has important climate-change implications. When organic material like food waste is dumped into landfills, it slowly decomposes and releases methane, an especially powerful greenhouse gas. The methane released into the atmosphere by Colorado landfills every year is equivalent to more than four million tons of carbon dioxide, according to a state report — or the annual emissions of nearly 900,000 gas-powered vehicles.
The second bill approved by lawmakers Tuesday aims to reduce those impacts by improving composting rates. It gives Colorado health and agriculture officials three years to develop an “organics management plan” to expand infrastructure and demand for composted material throughout the state.
The zero-waste interim committee was only authorized to advance two pieces of legislation, meaning that several other bills it considered — including a “bottle bill” that would establish a refund value for recyclable beverage containers, similar to laws enacted in ten other states — didn’t make the cut. But advocates hope that a version of that bill could still be introduced during next year's regular session, along with others. The state has set an ambitious goal of raising its diversion rate to 28 percent by 2021, which means there's plenty of work left to be done.
“I don’t think that one or two bills, necessarily, are going to fix everything,” Cutter says. “But having the opportunity for all these people to study and listen just ensures that they’ll carry that knowledge forward as legislators, and hopefully be able to continue all the work that we need to be doing.”