Colorado’s environmental watchdogs are back with their latest report on the state’s progress in boosting recycling, and the results are about what you would expect.
The Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG), the state chapter of the Ralph Nader-founded liberal advocacy organization, released the 2023 edition of its “State of Recycling and Composting in Colorado” report last week. The report found that Colorado diverts just 16 percent of its annual waste from landfills by recycling or composting—a level that has remained relatively unchanged over the last several years despite receiving considerable attention from policymakers.
In a write-up of the study and its findings in The Denver Post, the authors place the blame for such low recycling rates on what they called a “lack of access to recycling programs.”
Eco-Cycle and the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, the nonprofits behind the annual research, say recycling rates in Colorado have remained low and stubbornly unmoving for years.
“Which is abysmal,” said Suzanne Jones, the executive director of Eco-Cycle.
The main reason for the lack of progress is a lack of access to recycling programs, said Rachel Setzke, a senior policy and research associate at Eco-Cycle. Only 35 communities in Colorado have guaranteed access to recycling in residential housing, though looser programs of varying types exist elsewhere.
Left unsaid, however, was an explanation for why most communities don’t currently offer recycling programs.
One of the culprits is simple: recycling is expensive.
Recycling’s China Shock
Recycling efforts have become much more costly since about 2018, when China stopped accepting most imported American scrap. With the loss of our largest market for disposed recyclables, domestic programs have had to cover those additional costs by raising prices for recycling services or by simply incinerating and landfilling more waste previously considered recyclable.
As a result, there has been a trend across the country in recent years of cities significantly limiting or even canceling their recycling programs because of the market shock induced by China, including towns here in Colorado. The trade publication Waste Dive counted more than 60 cities that ended their curbside programs in 2019 alone.
To counteract this trend, the study’s authors sounded an optimistic note about the promise of the state’s so-called Producer Responsibility Bill coming to fruition. That measure, passed by the General Assembly in 2022, is set to charge major manufacturers operating in the state an annual tax to fund universal recycling programs for homes, businesses, and government buildings by 2026.
In other words, their hopes lie in having recycling costs subsidized (or covered entirely) by the fees imposed on businesses under the terms of the bill to stand up recycling programs where it has otherwise proven uneconomical.
That may solve the access problem the report’s authors pointed to, assuming everything runs as planned, but it doesn’t solve the other major issue with recycling.
How Much Can Actually Be Recycled?
Another problem is that many materials commonly thought to be “recyclable” by most people really aren’t, in the sense that it either doesn’t make economic sense to do so, or it is physically impossible to recycle them. Plastic is a prime example of this. Only roughly 5 percent of all plastic actually gets recycled each year, even though recycling efforts are more visible than ever. That’s because it’s quite time and labor-intensive to do so, even assuming people properly sort and rinse their disposed plastic, and different types of plastic tend to degrade during the recycling process. Additionally, making new plastic from petroleum byproducts is relatively cheap, and often less emissions-intensive than recycling old plastic.
Waste items like aluminum cans and certain other scrap metals, certain types of cardboard and paper, and electronics, due to their precious metals content, still make a great deal of sense to recycle and typically pencil out cost-wise. But even these rely heavily on people properly sorting these products and ensuring they aren’t contaminated with other waste. In other words, it takes a lot of effort to make recycling “work” for a very marginal benefit, even when big corporations are forced to foot the bill.
That helps explain why, even in a place like Boulder, where people are presumably more conscientious about recycling than elsewhere, only about a quarter of all waste is currently recycled.
Is Recycling Garbage?
The appeal of recycling to citizens and policymakers alike is entirely understandable. For years, “reduce, reuse, and recycle” has been one of the primary mantras of environmentalism instilled in the citizenry by schools and public service campaigns. Additionally, it’s one of the few activities painted as environmentally beneficial that people feel they can directly participate in. However, it’s important to be realistic about its limits and how overemphasizing it can be more costly than helpful.
A system of voluntary recycling is preferable to mandatory or universal recycling regimes because it self-selects for the type of people who will be more prone to recycling correctly (e.g., properly sorting recyclables from non-recyclables, rinsing their recyclables of contaminants before disposal, etc.). In other words, with the financial skin in the game of a business or household paying for curbside service, the costs of improperly recycling are borne more directly by the people responsible for doing so. Universal programs instead subsidize these costs across the state’s tax base (or private sector) and essentially hope that everyone is discerning about the waste they dispose of, no matter how motivated they may be to reduce the environmental footprint of their consumption.
All policy choices have trade-offs and opportunity costs associated with pursuing them, and the coffers of both the public and critical industries are not infinite. Recycling should be pursued to the extent that it makes economic sense for both consumers and waste management firms to participate. Lofty recycling rates, however, should not become the white whale of Colorado’s environmental policy.