The State of Recycling and Composting in Colorado 2021

Released by: CoPIRG and Eco-Cycle

Colorado is not moving fast enough to improve recycling and composting

In the fifth year of the State of Recycling & Composting in Colorado Report, Eco-Cycle and CoPIRG found Colorado is failing to meet its recycling and composting goals and remains one of the 20 most wasteful states. In 2020, Colorado’s statewide recycling and composting rate was just 15%, which is less than half the national recycling and composting rate of 32%. The recycling rate for plastics was even worse than the state average, with only 9% of plastic containers and packaging recycled statewide. In total, Coloradans buried over 5,900,000 tons of materials in the state’s landfills in 2020. 

While the state as a whole is failing to make noticeable progress to increase recycling and composting, leading Colorado communities are recovering more than 50% of their discarded materials, demonstrating that recycling and composting can be successful solutions for Colorado to reduce climate emissions, create green jobs, and conserve natural resources. The following communities rank as the top recycling and composting programs in the state with best-in-class policies, programs, and infrastructure that serve as models that can be scaled up statewide to meet Colorado’s recycling and composting goals. 

However, despite these local successes and state and local efforts to increase recycling and composting programs in recent years, it appears the state will fall well short of meeting its 2021 recycling and composting goal of 28%. Colorado is also not on track to meet the national goal of 50% waste diversion by 2030. While the overall tons of materials recycled and composted has been increasing since the state started tracking waste diversion in 2007, this increase has been nearly the same as the state’s increased rate of population growth. This means Colorado is not making any true gains to reduce waste and recover more resources, and is just barely keeping pace with the state’s growing population. 

After five years of reporting on recycling and composting trends and rates in Colorado, it is clear the state is not moving nearly fast enough to improve recycling and composting rates. 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. 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. 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. 


Producer responsibility policy will transform Colorado’s stagnant recycling system 

The most significant and pressing recommendation to improve recycling in Colorado is a statewide producer responsibility policy for containers, packaging materials, and printed paper. This policy would ensure that every Coloradan has convenient access to recycling the most readily recyclable materials, such as plastic bottles, aluminum cans, glass bottles, cardboard, newspaper, and other printed paper. 

Producer responsibility policies, often called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), are gaining momentum in the US as the most proven and effective strategy to sustainably finance and expand recycling programs to increase recycling rates, reduce plastic pollution, and help curb carbon emissions. Over 150 global companies and leading organizations support producer responsibility policies as the only proven and likely mechanism to provide sufficient, ongoing, and dedicated funding to increase recycling and reduce plastic pollution. Over 40 countries have mandatory producer responsibility policies for containers and packaging materials, and Maine and Oregon adopted the first US policies in 2021. Producer responsibility is already a proven and successful concept in Colorado. The state has a producer responsibility program for paint that has substantially increased paint recycling, provided paint recycling access to 95% of Coloradans, and saved municipalities tens of thousands of dollars per year in recycling and disposal expenses since implementation in 2015. 

A producer responsibility policy is expected to be introduced in Colorado in the 2022 legislative session. This policy is based upon recommendations developed by CDPHE (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) and principles developed by consensus within Recycle Colorado through broad stakeholder engagement including municipalities, container and packaging companies, haulers, nonprofits, and other groups. Eco-Cycle and CoPIRG strongly support a producer responsibility policy for containers, packaging, and printed paper as the highest priority action to fundamentally revamp and expand recycling in Colorado, eliminate unnecessary and wasteful packaging, and reduce plastic pollution and carbon emissions. 

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