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Colorado lags behind the national average in recycling and composting rates

Recycling and compost containers in an alley in Longmont in Boulder County, Colorado. Unlike many other communities, single-stream recycling is included for all single-family and many multi-family residents as part of monthly trash collection fees in Longmont.
Maeve Conran
Rocky Mountain Community Radio
A recycling bin and a compost container in an alley in Longmont in Boulder County, Colorado. Unlike many other communities, single-stream recycling is included for all single-family and many multi-family residents as part of monthly trash collection fees in Longmont.

Colorado's recycling and composting rate has been stuck at half the national average for several years.

That's according to a new report released this week called The State of Recycling and Composting in Colorado.

It's put together every year by EcoCycle, a nonprofit recycler based in Boulder County, and COPIRG, the Colorado Public Interest Research Group.

Sam Fuqua spoke with Rachel Setzke with EcoCycle, one of the co-authors of the report.

Sam Fuqua: Well, there's good news and bad news in this report. Let's take the bad news first. We're still lagging the rest of the country in recycling and composting. Give us some numbers to compare there, and tell us why you think that is.

Rachel Setzke: So our recycling rate, or recycling and composting rate, the amount of material that we are diverting from landfill to compost and recycle, we're at about 16%, it's been between 15% and 16% for a number of years, and the national average is around 32%.

And the simple answer for that is that a lot of Colorado doesn't have access to recycling, especially people in rural areas and in multi-family housing don't have easy access to that recycling.

And so we need to be able to get better recycling access and luckily that is going to happen thanks to a statewide bill that was passed a couple of years ago, producer responsibility for recycling.

Sam Fuqua: Why are other states ahead of us? Have they done better on multi-unit building recycling and better recycling in rural areas?

Rachel Setzke: Waste management, recycling and trash and composting, looks very different in different states.

Here in Colorado, it is mostly what we call an open market system, so you just have businesses coming in and competing for the right to be able to serve individual customers.

And so there's no guarantee in a lot of places whether or not you can get that recycling.

When you look at other states that are really leading on the recycling rate, you have systems that operate very differently, where the municipalities are actually operating the recycling and the trash hauling, similar to the cities of Denver and Longmont, but that's really not the case in Colorado, where you have the municipalities stepping in and making sure that there is access to recycling.

Sam Fuqua: So tell us about the new legislation that may make that easier for some communities.

Rachel Setzke: We are the third state in the country, California became the fourth state after us, to pass what's called a producer responsibility law for recycling.

And what that's going to do is require that any producer of any type of packaging pay a little bit of money, based on the type of packaging they're using, into a fund that will then pay for no-cost access for recycling for everyone in Colorado. So what that means for someone who's in a rural unincorporated area, or in a municipality where you don't have guaranteed recycling, it's going to make sure that you have no-cost recycling access, whether it's curbside, where recycling comes to your curb, or a drop-off center. It's going to be paid for, for that.

And what's really exciting about that is that bill will also incentivize those producers to use less packaging and to use better packaging.

So if they're using packaging that's really recyclable, like an aluminum or paper, then they're going to pay less money for that than if they're using packaging that's really hard to recycle or even as maybe toxic. So some of the really bad plastics, they'll likely have to pay more for that material.

Sam Fuqua: And how do we know that that's going to work? Plus, of course, we have so many things are in so much plastic.

Rachel Setzke: That's a great question. So producer responsibility, even though it's new in the United States, producer responsibility for packaging has been happening throughout the world for decades.

So we do actually have another producer responsibility program in Colorado, it's one for paint.

So anyone who buys paint and has leftover paint, you can take that paint to a participating entity, you can take that back there and then they will make sure that that paint gets recycled.

So it's not a new type of system, but the system producer responsibility for packaging is new.

And so we've seen it working around the world and in Canada for many decades, and right now in Colorado, we have seen a lot of progress on our state program since the passage of the bill about a year ago.

We have seen the state hire a full-time employee to oversee the program, and we've also seen major brands come together to create a non profit to actually implement the program.

And we've also seen a lot of input from the stakeholders who've supported it. So stakeholders like municipalities, local governments, and nonprofits, and environmental nonprofits like EcoCycle.

Sam Fuqua: Rachel Setzke is a Senior Research and Policy Associate at EcoCycle, the nonprofit recycler based in Boulder County.

You can find the annual report on the state of recycling in Colorado at their website, ecocycle.org.

Copyright © 2023 KGNU.

This story from KGNU was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Sam Fuqua is an award-winning radio journalist who has worked in public media since 1990, including over 20 years on the staff of KGNU, the community public radio station serving Boulder/Denver. He co-hosts KGNU's quarterly call-in program focused on conflict resolution.