Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the recycling rates of Boulder and Boulder County in 2018. That year, Boulder County recycled 40% of its waste and Boulder recycled 57%. The story below has been corrected. The story also has been clarified to note that Boulder’s recycling rate includes composting.
Despite its green reputation, Colorado produced a record 9,307,000 tons of waste in 2018, only 12% of which was recycled, far below the national average of 35%, according to Eco-Cycle.
While Boulder County outpaced its counterparts with 40% of its waste recycled, as did Boulder, which recycled or composted 57% of its waste, other progressive cities around the country, such as San Francisco and Portland, recycled 80% and 70% of their waste, respectively.
On Monday, several members of the Colorado Legislature’s Zero Waste and Recycling Interim Committee toured recycling facilities in Boulder, Larimer and Broomfield counties to better understand how they could craft legislation to boost Colorado’s recycling system.
The main difference between Colorado and California, according to Kate Bailey, the solutions director for Eco-Cycle, is the cost of landfills is nearly twice as high in more densely populated areas of California, which also make those areas more attractive to the companies that repurpose recycled material.
“We need to be selling materials out our backdoor to cover our costs,” Bailey said. “With recycling being more expensive than landfills, what makes this facility work right now is that cities have recycling programs that bring us their materials for free, but we need to be focused on creating end markets for our material so we offset future costs.”
End-market businesses would not only make recycling centers more profitable, but also would reduce the costs and environmental impact of shipping sorted material to end-market businesses out of state, she said.
The first step, Bailey said, is to make municipal recycling programs more prevalent. Currently, only 15 cities in Colorado automatically provide households with a recycling cart, while 25 counties provide no curbside recycling at all. In many of those areas, drop-off centers are also few and far between.
With more municipal recycling programs, the price of recycling will fall as convenience increases, allowing the state to produce more material for end-market businesses to repurpose, incentivizing them to open factories in Colorado and allowing them to not only divert more waste from the landfills, but also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, said Baily and Dan Matsch, the manager of Eco-Cycle’s Center for Hard to Recycle Materials.
However, because many smaller communities cannot afford the equipment used to sort and bundle recycling, the ideal situation, ]Matsch said, is to have a regional hub where all of the communities along the Front Range can combine resources.
Committee member Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, spoke with fellow committee member Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, about the possibility of setting up a system where Montrose could truck its recyclable plastics, paper and glass to the Front Range, where they could be processed and sold to manufacturers. On the way back, the truck could carry organic materials from the Front Range that could be used for compost on Montrose’s many farms.
For the time being, however, the Zero Waste and Recycling Interim Committee is focused on the lower hanging fruit.
“It’s clear we need to incentivize recycling infrastructure to get companies here,” said Lisa Cutter, D-Evergreen, chair of the committee. “If we don’t, then it doesn’t matter.”
While the Zero Waste and Recycling Interim Committee will not begin the process of submitting ideas for legislation until Tuesday, the group has been gathering information on Colorado’s recycling infrastructure since July and already had some ideas in play on Monday.
The first is to design and fund a state-level recycling market development center. The center would assist existing and new end-market recycling business to evaluate opportunities, advocate for local and statewide recycling policies to increase the supply of recycled materials, and educate the public about the importance of recycling.
The second is to provide both business and personal property tax relief for new and existing businesses that participate in the recycling economy.