State of Recycling and Composting in Colorado 2020

4th Edition
Released by: CoPIRG Foundation and Eco-Cycle

Colorado wasted more and recycled less in 2019 than in 2018, continuing to fall short of our state recycling goals and behind the rest of the nation. Despite the downward trend, there are dozens of Colorado communities continuing to demonstrate how recycling and composting can be successful in Colorado. In addition, growing national momentum and new statewide policies and investments show great potential to truly accelerate our recycling, composting and waste reduction efforts in the coming years in order to build a circular economy and as a pivotal solution to reduce climate pollution. 

Colorado’s statewide recycling rate dropped in 2019 to 15.9%, down from 17.2% in 2018. Colorado continues to lag far behind the national recycling rate of 35% and behind our goal to reach 28% diversion by 2021. On average, Colorado residents recycle and compost only 1.1 pounds per person per day, while residents in leading states like Oregon and Washington recycle 3 pounds per person per day—nearly three times more than Colorado residents. 

Colorado continues to produce more municipal waste every year, sending over 6.1 million tons of material to the landfill in 2019—an additional 509,000,000 pounds of trash compared to 2018. It is the Front Range that shoulders the blame for our wasteful habits: The region produced 87% of the state’s municipal waste in 2019 and sent 5% more trash to landfills in 2019 than in 2018, greatly outpacing population growth of 1.3%. Front Range residents landfilled a hefty 6 pounds of material per person per day compared to Greater Colorado residents who only landfilled 4.7 pounds per person per day.

Despite a disappointing year for recycling overall, there are several significant bright spots around the state. The cities of Aspen, Boulder, Durango, Fort Collins, and Loveland are leading the way as the top recycling programs in the state. The City of Arvada, the seventh-largest city in Colorado, adopted a new curbside recycling program to increase convenient access to recycling for over 30,000 households. Mountain and rural areas, collectively considered Greater Colorado, deserve kudos for having already surpassed the 2021 recycling goals set by the state and producing less trash per person than the Front Range. Lastly, businesses and municipalities continue to expand composting programs to manage organic materials such as leftover food and yard debris. In fact, organics programs have grown fivefold since 2010.

At the state level, there were two significant accomplishments in 2020 that signify a concerted effort to invest in Colorado’s recycling economy. First, the state legislature adopted a comprehensive bill designed to bring more recycling businesses to the state, known as SB20-055, Incentivize Development Recycling End Markets. Second, the Front Range Waste Diversion (FWRD) Fund awarded over $2 million in its first round of grant funding to stimulate recycling and composting efforts in the Front Range. These complementary efforts reflect the two primary strategies needed to increase recycling in Colorado—the need to increase access to convenient recycling and composting programs, particularly along the Front Range, and the need to attract more businesses in Colorado to make use of our recyclable and compostable materials.

Despite our low recycling rate, Colorado’s recycling efforts continue to have a positive impact on our climate, saving over 1.9 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, which is the equivalent of removing over 400,000 passenger cars from the road for one year. This underscores the importance of improving recycling and composting programs statewide as some of the most cost-effective actions local communities can take to reduce carbon emissions. One of the best ways to improve recycling is to provide curbside recycling to all residents. This report recognizes the 38 Colorado municipalities that are models for automatically providing curbside recycling to residents as part of their basic trash service.

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