recycling bins

Colorado – the state of blue skies, white-capped mountains and Red Rocks – isn’t as green as you might think.

In fact, we’re downright dingy, which is a sad thing to have to admit in the middle of Colorado Recycles Week.

Eco-Cycle and CoPIRG released their fifth annual joint report on the state of recycling and composting in these parts.

Colorado is stagnant with 15.3% recycling rate, which is less than half the 32% national average. That Subaru and North Face jacket might be the Colorado outdoor style, but Coloradans do a lousy job of living up to our green reputation, when you toss in the metro Denver’s dirty air and the abandoned mines that are unceasingly poisoning our mountain streams.

On Monday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the country's first national recycling strategy aimed at achieving a 50% municipal recycling rate by 2030, supported by $350 million in federal grants.

We've got a long way to go and a short time to get there. Colorado sits among the 20 the most wasteful states. Coloradans buried about 5.9 million tons of garbage last year, roughly the weight of 142 airliners — and that's just one year.

The average Coloradan recycles or composts roughly one pound a day. Folks in Washington and Oregon reuse about three pounds daily on average.

Researchers collected data from 180 Colorado municipalities to arrive at its findings. Folks in Boulder recycle and compost 53%, the best city in the state if you combine household and commercial recycle, though Loveland leads with residential recycling at 58% and Fort Collins is tops in industrial reuse at 65%. 

Fewer than half the towns and cities with more than 10,000 automatically provide curbside recycling. Denver does, but not Aurora, Colorado Springs or Pueblo, which offer it for an extra charge.

"Lack of funding is the most commonly cited barrier by municipalities, residents, and businesses, and has resulted in inconsistent, inequitable, and inconvenient access to recycling and composting programs," the report states. "Additional challenges include low landfill prices that undercut recycling and composting programs, lack of local and regional businesses to buy recycled materials, and the prolific use of nonrecyclable single-use plastics.

The report adds: "Together, the lack of statewide progress to overcome these challenges points to the need for bold, game-changing policies and system-wide solutions to modernize and transform Colorado’s recycling and composting systems. By recycling and composting more, Colorado will reduce climate pollution, protect our clean air and water, and create jobs."

Download the full report by clicking here.

Democrats in the state legislature seem to get the message. Short of making recycling mandatory, which would be a political nightmare, there's not a whole lot more to ask from the General Assembly.

Ditto the uber-liberal Denver City County, which banned single-use plastic bags as of July 1. The state legislature passed House Bill 1162, which Gov. Jared Polis signed in a ceremony at state Boettcher Mansion.

Colorado became the ninth state, and the first non-coastal state, to ban single use bags and polystyrene food containers, though the ban doesn't take effect until 2024.

This week's report prescribes more remedies:

  • Launch an end-market development center to attract recycling businesses to Colorado.
  • Invest federal stimulus funds to support recycling and composting statewide.
  • Develop a statewide plan to repurpose organic waste, such as food scraps and yard debris.
  • Reduce single-use plastic utensils and other disposable food service accessories.

"We really need groundbreaking policies to break the cycle of poor recycling that we've fallen into," said Danny Katz, the Colorado director of CoPIRG.

He said a big hurdle is that Colorado doesn't have a system to efficiently and affordably get stuff that has value separated and transported to a recycling facility. Another problem is too much packaging to get rid of in the first place.

He foresees product manufacturers taking responsibility for the eventual waste they sell by paying an assessment on packaging that funds the infrastructure necessary to turn trash into gold, providing recycling to every Coloradan with no direct cost to them.

Companies that pay into the fund would be part of running it, while the dues they pay on packaging delivers them a benefit of recycled material while giving them an incentive to create less packaging.

Can't work in Colorado? It already is. PaintCare was set up by the paint industry to handle leftover product in states with paint stewardship laws, as Colorado did in 2014. Since 2015 the nonprofit has used a 75-cent fee on a gallon of paint to collect, transport and recycle 6 million gallons left at 183 free year-round sites, usually paint stores.

Human nature prefers easy and simple, and when human nature is against you, it's a burden. Americans somehow broke the habit of littering back in the 1970s. Finding a responsible and affordable way to get rid the trash we're not throwing out the car window, though, has proven much more difficult.

I have been sitting through government presentations on the benefits of recycling for more than 30 years, waiting for the stuff we throw away to become valuable enough to yield a return, not a constant government subsidy or household expense. I can't wait another 30 years, so if some want it, they need to convince the many.

"Do it because it's good for you" is a tough sales pitch.

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