Close-up shot of person holding plastic straws
Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan

There is a common misconception, I’ve learned, that once the legislative session ends the State Capitol empties out and becomes rather like a tomb. That’s not exactly true, of course; for one thing, the building is too bloody hot to be a tomb. Central air conditioning was not yet invented when the Capitol was constructed, and the ad hoc AC system that has been patched in serves merely to create a handful of icy redoubts as it inequitably distributes its chill.

There are the tourists, both organized groups and individuals rebelliously wandering about independent of structured guidance; and work continues to hum bureaucratically along in some of the executive offices on the first floor. And, starting about this time of year, a careful observer can spot a legislator here or there emerging from post-session hibernation to begin work on one of the various interim committees.

One new committee formed this year is the Zero Waste and Recycling Interim Study Committee. One can surmise its intended purpose from its title, and it’s hard to quarrel too strongly with that intent. For all its annoyingly self-righteous chest-thumping about being a “green” state, Colorado’s recycling rate hovers at an absurdly low 12 percent — one of the lowest in the nation.

We know a few things going into the committee’s inaugural meeting next Wednesday: A) there is, like with most everything else, a free-market solution, which B) will probably not be discovered by this committee because C) no government committee in the history of bureaucracy has done a better job than the market in solving economic problems (which this ultimately is), and D) they will try anyway.

There is a pretty good opportunity for this committee to make some inroads. There are some smart people chairing and assigned to it, and some smart people in the private sector — in manufacturing and elsewhere — who know what the challenges are and could offer some valuable insights if they are invited to the table.

But there is a pretty good opportunity for mischief as well. Government committees, however well-intentioned, have a nasty and unfortunate habit of becoming ideologized, focused more on pursuing an agenda than identifying a solution. What gets churned out is generally overly prescriptive, to the point of being counter-productive.

The more zealous wings of the environmental lobby have developed fixations on particular products they don’t think you should use. The list is long and continually gestating, but it is currently most fashionable to hate plastic straws and polystyrene (Styrofoam). They didn’t manage to get either substance banned last session, and its entirely possible that they view this committee as a vehicle for squaring that circle next session.

But people, even green, liberal Coloradans, don’t much like being treated like toddlers. There is a natural tendency to rebel against that sort of officious nanny-statism. Before long, even folks who may be philosophically inclined to accept the notion that surrendering straws, coffee cups, and take-out containers will have some tremendous impact on the environment become resentful of the bureaucratic scolding.

Then there are the perennial unintended consequences. It turns out that the preferred replacements for the ubiquitous Styrofoam container may not be all they are cracked up to be; they are heavier, bulkier, and don’t degrade quite as rapidly as we would like them to. And the turtle-friendly paper straws that are touted as replacements for the plastic demons befouling soda glasses across the land? Well, come to find out nearly all of those are produced in China, where whatever passes for their EPA is far more likely to punish a worker for not displaying adequate enthusiasm when singing of Xi Jinping, than in enforcing anything vaguely resembling an environmental standard. Then the things have to be shipped over here, burning untold amounts of that most hateful of the hated substances, petroleum.

Speaking of unintended consequences, there is one issue the committee could address, which might actually make a considerable difference; as the state seems intent on bulling through with its plan to prematurely force electric vehicles onto the market, the dilemma of what to do with the spent lithium batteries will escalate. Already dozens of the things are starting to fill up HazMat storage spaces around the country, and nobody seems to have the foggiest notion, realistically, of what to do with them.

If this new committee invites private industry, manufacturers, and business groups to the table as stakeholders, allows them to offer solutions, then gets out of their way to let it happen, it will have served a noble purpose. If, on the other hand, it proves to be little more than a clearing house to provide a lift for the environmental lobby’s pet projects, it will be disappointing; no less than because nothing will ultimately be done to improve Colorado’s dismal recycling record.

Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and a recovering journalist based in Denver.

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