State of Recycling in Colorado 2019

3rd Edition
Released by: CoPIRG and Eco-Cycle

2018 and 2019 have been tumultuous years for recycling markets around the U.S. and the world, some of the worst ever seen. Here in Colorado, we have weathered the storm better than most states, and we continue to inch forward on recycling with new community programs and a slight increase in tons recycled. However, we still lag far behind the national average and must substantially pick up the pace if we are to meet our state recycling goals. In the wake of dire warnings about the need for immediate action on climate pollution, and the equally alarming proliferation of plastic pollution in our oceans, there has never been a more important time for Colorado to double down on its commitment to protect our environment and build smart, sustainable communities.

Over the last two years, prices for recyclable materials plummeted to their lowest levels in 25 years. Every major news outlet ran headline stories about the recycling “crisis.” Dozens of communities around the U.S. cancelled programs due to rising costs and limited markets.  Colorado was not exempt from the challenging conditions and suffered a few of our own setbacks, particularly in rural areas. However, the good news in our state is that our recyclable materials are still being recycled, and there are no reports of Colorado recyclables being sent to landfills.

Colorado communities recycled and composted over 1.2 million tons of materials in 2018, up nearly 75,000 tons compared to 2017. At the local level, most communities reported expanding or improving their recycling or composting programs during 2018 and the first part of 2019, rather than scaling them At the state level, the legislature took a huge step forward in 2019 to improve recycling by creating a significant new funding source for Front Range communities to increase recycling (see p. 13).

However, despite some all-star community efforts, Colorado continues to be one of the worst states at recycling and one of the most wasteful states in the country. Colorado generated over 15,900,000 tons of materials in 2018 (from residential, commercial, and industrial sources), up from 14,000,000 tons in 2017. That makes 2018 our most wasteful year ever! We created an extra 10 million pounds of trash per day in 2018 compared to 2017. Coloradans only recycled or composted 17% of our municipal solid waste in 2018 (from residential and commercial sources), less than half the national average of 35% and far below our statewide goal of 28% by 2021.

Increasing recycling in Colorado is vital to reducing carbon pollution and boosting our economy by creating jobs and providing needed materials to companies manufacturing goods in our state. The challenge to increasing recycling in Colorado is two-fold — we need to increase access to convenient recycling and composting programs, particularly along the Front Range, and we need to attract more businesses to Colorado to use our recyclable and compostable materials. Over 95% of Colorado’s waste could be diverted from landfills, which could serve as the feedstock for businesses in the state to make new products or be used to build stronger, more resilient soils that grow healthier food and store carbon out of our atmosphere.  While Colorado has strong markets for recycled glass and some for metals and compost, we need to grow the entire recycling sector by incentivizing other manufacturers to incorporate recycled materials in their products by providing them a strong supply of clean, recycled feedstock materials to use from our curbside recycling programs.

Providing convenient curbside recycling to all residents is one of the most important and proven steps our cities can take to improve recycling in Colorado, especially on the Front Range. The Front Range alone sent over 5,000,000 tons of municipal waste to landfills in 2018, accounting for more than 85% of the waste in the state. Front Range residents are also more wasteful than their rural counterparts, producing an extra pound of trash per person per day.

This is why focusing on improving recycling on the Front Range provides the biggest bang for our buck to increase our overall recycling rate. Yet residents in most Front Range cities have to go out of their way to get curbside recycling—they have to find a hauler that offers it and then pay more for the service. By contrast, our leading recycling cities bundle recycling and trash service together so residents automatically get a recycling cart when they sign up for trash service, and both services are included for one price. National studies show bundling is one of the most effective ways to get more people to participate in recycling and to collect more recyclable material per household.

This 2019 report is a call to action to our largest cities to provide curbside recycling to all residents, and to our state legislature to invest in local end markets to build a new recycling economy in Colorado. In addition, the report looks at how national trends are impacting Colorado’s recycling programs, explores which cities are leading and lagging at recycling, and recommends strategies to boost recycling based on proven solutions working here and across the U.S. 

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