When a city experiences low recycling participation, the results end up being higher greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, and an increase in wasted materials.
Although the city of Denver’s 26% landfill diversion rate — which includes composting — is currently below the national average of 32%, there are still challenges pertaining to recycling in Denver.
These challenges include English-only messaging and a general lack of understanding how and what to recycle. Moreover, some Denver residents either do not have easy access to recycling or cannot afford to participate in recycling.
Still, Denver’s Sustainable Resource Management plan has set a 50% diversion rate goal for 2027, with an even loftier 70% goal set for 2032.
In order to reach these goals, something big has to change.
That’s where House Bill 22-1355 might be able to help.
House Bill 22-1355, also known as the Producer Responsibility Program For Recycling, has the potential to be a recycling game changer in Colorado, touting a win/win/win scenario for manufacturers, consumers and the environment.
By requiring companies that sell printed paper, cardboard, metal, glass and plastic packaging to pay for a statewide recycling system, it has the potential to change manufacturer behavior to encourage a switch to more sustainable products.
“This bill is about those (that) create the most environmental harm bearing the most responsibility for reducing the harm,” said Denver City Councilmember Robin Kniech. “We need responsibility at the local level, and producers at the largest stream bearing their responsibility, too. We need both components to be successful.”
The bill was first introduced to the Colorado State Legislature on March 31. It passed on May 11 and Gov. Jared Polis signed it on June 3.
Once the bill is made into law, the Producer Responsibility Organization will be formed, consisting of and self-governed by Colorado manufacturers grossing $5 million or more, with an over-seeing advisory board and participation from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The purpose of the PRO will be to hold higher-grossing manufacturers accountable for the amount of waste produced and sold in Colorado. Participating companies will be required to pay dues of varying prices, depending upon the type of material produced and how easy it is to recycle.
The PRO will first perform a needs-assessment to determine how to divide up the dues collected to ensure equitable, free and easy access to recycling across the state. For example, in areas where a free trash bin is already provided, a recycling bin will also be provided to include free pick up. In multi-family homes where a shared dumpster is used, a recycling dumpster will join alongside, and in rural areas where residents must drive their trash to a landfill, a recycling dumpster will be also available.
In other cases where municipalities already offer free recycling, like in Denver, reimbursements from PRO will be given, with the stipulation that the funds be used for expanding and improving recycling programs.
“The idea is that recycling should be as easy as trash pick up is now,” said Jacob Smith, executive director of Colorado Communities for Climate Action. “If you don’t have recycling, you’ll get it. If you do have it, you might end up with a better system than what you have now. Whoever is paying won’t have to pay anymore.”
Supporters of HB 22-1355 believe this bill could result in a new system of drop-offs or collection methods, potentially with entrepreneurs offering more reliable waste streams.
While recycling equity is important, some Denver residents believe change must happen from the top to truly make an impact.
“Mitigating climate change and helping the environment should fall on the shoulders of the manufacturers rather than the consumers,” said Abby Peterson, a recycling advocate who has lived in Denver for eight years. She added it’s important to keep pushing the boundaries of how things are manufactured in the first place. “Why not stop making products that require recycling? I think a greater emphasis on manufacturers to create compostable products, along with providing more resources to the consumer about how to compost, would be beneficial.”
The bill’s sponsors — Rep. Lisa Cutter, D-Jefferson County; Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Adams County; and Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver — and advocates believe the end result will be a win for everybody.
“Recycling is a statewide equity access issue,” said Ean Tafoya, a Denver resident who serves as the state director for GreenLatinos, in a news release. “This is the first step in ensuring that we acknowledge the responsibility we have as a state to make sure that we are recycling and that our community is at the root of implementation.”
It is thought that Colorado residents will benefit from the bill by having free and easy access to recycling, manufacturers will benefit from lower cost of materials and product reliability, and the environment will benefit from less pollution and lower emissions.
The bill suggests that recycling will be easier for all Colorado residents. One provision of the bill is that recycling will become uniform across the state. Regardless of where one lives in Colorado, the same types of materials will be accepted for recycling. This will take out the current guesswork of what can and cannot be recycled depending upon the zip code.
The dues paid by the manufacturers can be used to provide more recycling bins in communities, generating higher recycling rates. Ideally, fewer recyclable materials will end up in landfills and there will be a reduction of plastic and trash pollution.
When recyclable materials end up in a landfill, it is essentially money being thrown away.
“Millions of dollars of valuable material goes into the landfills every year,” Cutter said, adding that this leads to the production of raw materials, resulting in increased carbon emissions.
With the PRO, Colorado manufacturers will have the option to buy back materials that are recycled, creating a closed-loop system. This will not only reduce cost for the manufacturers, but also ensure product reliability and protect businesses from supply chain vulnerability.
“Take glass, for example,” Smith said. “Getting high-quality glass is really difficult. If we can find a way to improve and strengthen the (recycling) infrastructure, one result is greater recovery of glass, and businesses can access that and get it cheaper than from out of state.”
The closed-loop benefits the environment as well. As transport from out of state decreases, so will carbon emissions. Supporters of the bill also believe the PRO could shift the way manufacturers package their products.
“Right now, if I’m producing this particular product and I’d like to reduce my liability and replace that product with something more sustainable, we might change what producers are selling in our state,” Cutter said. “If we change that behavior, that could have a big impact on us meeting our goals in Denver and across the state.”
The timeline of HB 1355’s recycling plans are lengthy. It could be years before every Denver resident has free bins in their garage or are within walking distance of one.
The City of Denver, however, isn’t going to wait — there are other proposals on the table that might push Denver further and faster with increasing its recycling participation. For example, the Pay As You Throw changes to trash pick up services will be voted on in June. In this waste management model, compost and recycling pick up are free, while trash pick up involves a fee. It is meant to encourage greater composting and recycling participation. Another Denver initiative is called Waste No More, which targets commercial waste. This will be on the November 2022 ballot.
Thanks to these efforts that can make headway alongside HB 22-1355, recycling in Denver will eventually be easier and more convenient for everyone — even if it takes a while to get there.
“I know that Denver residents want to recycle, but it is confusing, inconvenient and costly,” Cutter said. “This bill is removing all those barriers so Denver residents can participate in creating a green city.”
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