Ask Eartha: Why is Colorado so bad at recycling? (column) |

Ask Eartha: Why is Colorado so bad at recycling? (column)

Eartha Steward
Special to the Daily

Dear Eartha,

I recycle everything. Can you imagine my surprise when I learned that Colorado falls drastically behind the national recycling rate? How can we be so far behind? — Tori, Breckenridge

Dear Tori,

You aren’t the only one scratching your head about why Colorado is so far behind the national recycling rate. According to the EPA’s most recent figures, Americans generated 254 million tons of trash and diverted 87 million tons of material through recycling and composting. Per capita, Americans generate 4.4 pounds of trash per day but divert only 1.5 pounds. Common materials for recycling include plastics 1-7, metals, paper and cardboard, glass and organic waste (food scraps and yard debris). Not all recycling programs are alike, and rural communities struggle with the dichotomy of low landfill tipping fees (for trash) and difficult recycling markets. This drives individuals and businesses to throw away materials vs. recycle them. In Colorado, it’s estimated that we bury approximately $170 million worth of valuable materials in our landfills annually. We’re burying money!

In Colorado, we face similar challenges that other western states do — large urban corridors and very rural outlying communities. For those of us in Summit, we are lucky to have access to Front Range markets for our materials and a strong recycling program at the Summit County Resource Allocation Park (SCRAP). Not only does the SCRAP collect most of the commonly recycled materials and organics, but also provides opportunities for residents to properly dispose of hard to recycle materials like electronics, household hazardous waste and appliances. Despite our moderate success in Summit, Colorado still falls far behind the national average of 34 percent waste diversion from landfills. Colorado as a state is somewhere in the 12 percent range. How can a state with such a strong outdoor and environmental ethic be one of the top 10 most wasteful states in the nation?

We can do much better, but for starters Colorado doesn’t have a statewide recycling goal. Colorado relies on individual counties and municipalities to create recycling programs and set goals. But consider a state like Oregon that has a history of strong statewide waste recovery goals. This allows the Legislature and local governments to set policies that encourage waste recovery, diversion, and reuse programs. As of 2010, Oregon reached their goal by reporting a 50-percent diversion rate. That number has leveled off in part due to saturation of programs and low commodity prices. Commodity prices drive the recycling markets and, when they’re down, so is the demand for our recyclable materials.

Colorado sits right in the middle of the nation, and many of our materials go out of state because we don’t have strong re-processessing and re-manufacturing infrastructures. Materials that go out of state also take jobs with them. In 2014, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE) did an economic impact study for recycling and determined that the industry creates and sustains nearly 86,000 jobs (5,000 in rural communities) with total economic benefits of $8.7 billon. That’s nearly 5 percent of the total economic output in the state!

What this says is recycling is important to our economy. It’s important to curbing our greenhouse-gas emissions. And it’s important for future development as our population grows, and we generate more waste. Not all waste is equal, and the more we can start to think about ways to first reduce our consumption and then recover what we’re finished using, the better off we’ll be in the future.

How can you help? Continue to recycle. Write your elected officials, and tell them how important recycling and sustainability is to you and your family. Educate your neighbors and friends. And if you have clever or creative ideas for reuse and recycling, share them with anyone who will listen. Colorado needs to step up our game. Together, we can do it.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sustainable food, waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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