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Colorado prepares to ‘mine’ key materials from recycling bin

New laws are set to move the needle on the state’s ‘abysmal’ recycling rate of only 16%
Recycling items at the Durango Recycling Center. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

A new state law’s promise to give all Colorado residents equal access to recycling, while building up an industry that produces goods from recycled materials, may not hit the ground until 2026, but advocates and industry say key preparations are well under way.

The nation’s largest beverage companies, like Coca-Cola and Pepsi and Molson Coors, have committed to including high percentages of recycled materials into their packaging, and now they need a steady and clean stream of glass, cardboard and aluminum to ship new goods, said Liz Chapman, executive director of the industry and government nonprofit Recycle Colorado.

Colorado’s producer responsibility law passed earlier this year expands on industry and nonprofits’ success in creating powerful recycling economies in other states and countries, she said. The industry is set to deliver nominees to serve on the required Colorado producers’ council ahead of the July 2023 deadline, Chapman said, and then dig into details of how much they must tax themselves to provide recycling throughout the state by 2026.

“Beverage companies have made some really aspirational commitments, so they have a big stake,” Chapman said. “In order to achieve that, we need to collect more recyclables than we are currently. They need everyone to start putting materials into the correct bin so they can achieve those goals.”

Colorado’s nonprofit recycling advocates and local governments enthusiastically endorse the industry efforts so far to carry out the 2022 legislation, even while releasing an annual recycling report calling Colorado’s recycling status “abysmal.” Colorado’s overall recycling rate is stuck at 16% of the waste stream, only half the national average, according to a new assessment by the nonprofit groups CoPIRG and Eco-Cycle.

To finally boost those numbers, CoPIRG Executive Director Danny Katz said, Colorado needs to give all residents in every city and county the ability to recycle, and to create a homegrown industry for turning recycled materials back into usable goods. So far, Chapman said, only glass users have a local business that can turn discarded bottles into new goods.

The producer responsibility bill says that all Coloradans will have access to recycling at the same level they dispose of waste, Katz said. If you have curbside trash pickup, then your local government must guarantee curbside recycling pickup. If you live in a rural area and drop off trash, then the sorting center must accept a separate recycling stream, Katz said.

The industry council will by the end of 2023 propose to the state health department levels and options for how high packaging fees should be and what tiers of recycling services around the state that money can support. State health officials are taking applications for a separate public advisory council made up of advocates and local governments, to review policies that will carry out the new law. The industry fees are also meant to support new businesses to handle higher demand for hauling, sorting and manufacturing recycled goods.

Recycling advocates are encouraged by interest from the packaging industry, Katz said.

“What we’re hearing is those companies recognize they have a self-interest to make it happen much sooner” than required, Katz said. The companies realize demand for recycling laws is spreading, and “they like Colorado’s model and want to show it’s successful, to let them have a lot of the power to nimbly set up a good-steward organization,” he said.

Colorado recycling rates should also be helped by a growing network of local laws requiring more recycling and composting, advocacy groups said, in discussing their annual review. Denver voters overwhelmingly passed a recycling expansion – with more than 70% of the vote – bringing mandatory recycling and composting to apartments with eight or more units that are now offered the service at the discretion of the landlord.

Existing waste and recycling handling companies have issued warnings that they can’t service major expansions unless consumers and governments deliver them a cleaner stream of goods. Small amounts of the wrong materials can ruin entire loads of compost, while sorting out hard to recycle plastics can make work unprofitable, they argue.

The effort by producers will create a “minimum” list of recyclables in effect statewide, Katz said, meaning that if glass is recyclable in Denver, it must also be recyclable in Limon or Durango. Some rural communities without big public works budgets don’t take even the most common recycled materials, he said.

“It will make it a lot easier for those of us who want to do the right thing to do the right thing, to have this minimum list across the state,” Katz said. The producers and partners in government will have to fund broader education efforts.

Inflation and supply chain pressures give the producers more incentive to make it all work, Katz noted.

“Done well, this produces a lot of high quality material for them,” he said. “Either we can mine for materials in a faraway country, or we can mine for them in a recycling bin.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.