Colorado generated a record high amount of trash last year, while recycling rates continue to lag

Deepan Dutta, Summit Daily News
A view of the Summit County Resource Allocation Park (SCRAP) landfill on Wednesday, April 18 in Dillon. Sumimt County has a 23 percent recycling rate, while the statewide average remains at a pitiful 12 percent.
Hugh Carey, Summit Daily

Colorado is too trashy.

That’s the conclusion drawn from the Colorado Public Research Interest Group’s annual State of Recycling report. In 2017, Colorado created a record 9.3 million tons of waste while “flatlining” at 12 percent for recycling, compared to the national average of 35 percent.

That leaves over 8 million tons of trash going straight to the landfill, where it sits or gets shipped for disposal elsewhere. In many cases, the final resting place becomes the ocean or other natural environments.

The group estimates that the average Colorado resident produces 8 pounds of trash per day, or nearly 1.5 tons every year.

Over the past 10 years, Colorado has seen its waste production dip and rise to record levels, but diversion from landfills has not increased much, if at all, during that same span.

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Aside from the environmental concerns, decaying landfill waste also produces methane gas, a contributor to climate change. Not reducing or reusing also leads to manufacturers creating new products to feed our consumption habits. Those products will almost inevitably wind up as waste when they, too, are not reduced or reused.

Part of the problem, the group said in its report, is that while many cities track their recycling rates, most counties in the state don’t. That makes it difficult to find out which Colorado cities or counties are lagging behind.

Summit County is only one of five counties that does track its own recycling, which was highlighted in the report. Summit’s recycling rate is at 23 percent, nearly double the statewide average. However, Summit still lags behind Boulder, which has a 40 percent recycling rate, and Pitkin at 30 percent.

Summit County’s Zero Waste Task Force has been aiming to get the county to 100 percent diversion or zero waste, but it has been slow-going with the changing economic landscape for recycling operations and lack of funding and infrastructure to do more efficient diversion. The county has pledged to do more to educate residents and visitors about how to properly recycle. Additionally, voters earlier this month approved Ballot Measure 1A, which, among other things, sets aside $1.7 million for recycling and waste diversion annually.

Aside from the county and its residents, major companies in Summit are committing to strengthen their own diversion programs to help with the problem. Vail Resorts, one of the county’s largest employers and a major economic driver for Summit, recently unveiled its “EpicPromise: Commitment to Zero” initiative that promises to achieve “a zero net operating footprint” by 2030 by reaching zero net carbon emissions, zero waste to landfill with a short-term goal of reaching 50 percent diversion by 2020, and zero net operating impact on forests and habitat with land acquisitions.

Danny Katz, director of Colorado Public Research Interest Group and one of the authors of the report, lauded Vail Resorts’ efforts.

“Their vision is zero trash, and that’s the vision we should all have,” Katz said. “We are very far from that goal now, but there are things we can do now to get there.”

Thr group made four recommendations for Gov.-elect Jared Polis to implement within his first 100 days to get Colorado on track to improving its recycling rate.

The first is for the governor to appoint a statewide recycling coordinator who can start working with the recycling systems in cities and counties across the state, as well as bringing together the most important actors — state and local governments, nonprofits, private businesses and others — to build a more robust state and local recycling economy.

The second is to create incentives for “end-market” businesses that process and remanufacture recycled items to come to the state, avoiding the costs and inefficiency caused by shipping recyclables out of the state or even out of the country.

Third, and most importantly, is the need for increased funding, which could be helped with the creation of a “waste diversion funding task force” to find money that would fund recycling goals, especially in rural communities with a limited tax base and resources.

Finally, the group recommended the state “lead by example” by implementing best recycling and reduction practices within its own agencies and projects, including composting.

Katz also wants consumers to remember that the order of priorities for conservation should be reduce, then reuse, then recycle. Recycling, while a noble endeavor, seems to have had a negative impact on the rates at which we reduce consumption, or reuse items we already have before buying new consumables. Katz also puts the onus on companies to do their part to reduce waste.

“Too often, companies produce a product without thinking how easy it will be to reduce or reuse,” Katz said. “Companies at the front end of the waste problem should be at front end for the solution.”

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