Colorado's recycling rates lag far behind the national average and even further behind states with a progressive environmental agenda, a report shows.
"Colorado likes to say it's a green, environmentally conscious state, but it's pretty dirty when it comes to waste," said Laurie Johnson, executive director of the nonprofit Colorado Association for Recycling.
Only 12 percent of waste produced in the state is recycled, compared with the national average of 34 percent, says the report by Eco-Cycle and the Colorado Public Interest Research Group..
Colorado Springs does not track recycling rates, but researchers estimated that El Paso and Teller counties had some of the worst rates at 12 percent. Denver did not fare much better at 20 percent, compared with Loveland and Boulder, which lead the state at 61 percent and 53 percent, respectively.
California, Minnesota, Washington and Oregon all range between 44 percent and 47 percent for recycling, the highest west of the Mississippi, the report showed. All have significant diversion rate goals. California, for example, hopes to boost its rate to 75 percent by 2020.
In August, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment adopted its first statewide recycling goals, aiming to match the national average by 2026 and reach 45 percent diversion by 2036.
Johnson and her team want to reach higher, though, starting with Colorado Springs. The Colorado Association for Recycling chose Colorado Springs for its pilot recycling agenda in early November.
"Colorado Springs is not often associated with leadership when it comes to recycling," said Brandy Dietz, an association board member and general manager of Colorado Springs-based Colorado Industrial Recycling, "However, I think this reputation masks our enormous potential. Other communities like to tout their green initiatives, but often the focus is on things that sound good as opposed to action that has true impact. We are a business-centric community; we understand real change is pragmatic, not flashy."
It's a factor that will attract a younger workforce, too, said City Council President Richard Skorman.
"There is a marketing advantage to having a higher rate of recycling in that it attracts more millennials and young people," he said. "That's a key to our success as a growing city."
The pilot program hopes to address the city's meager diversion rate, starting with corrugated cardboard.
Alicia Archibald, head of safety and recycling education at Bestway Disposal, said 40 percent of cardboard and paper waste Bestway collects is put in trash bins by customers, sending the recyclable material to landfills, because the customer either uses the wrong bin, doesn't have recycling service or doesn't have enough information about recyclables.
"By just implementing a disposal ban on cardboard, it could really help the numbers in Colorado Springs," said Archibald, who was chosen to act as the recycling association's president.
Proper diversion of cardboard cuts methane emissions and water table contamination by landfills, Archibald said.
Johnson and Skorman hope an uptick in recycling will attract companies that repurpose recycled materials to Colorado Springs, creating a circular economy of recycled goods within the community.
Johnson used ReWall as an example. The Iowa-based company upcycles beverage cartons to make moisture and mold-resistant composite building panels. Des Moines public schools buy boards and ceiling tiles from the company made from their kids' milk cartons.
The cost savings trickle down to customers, as well, Archibald said. With a pay-as-you-throw pricing system, the cost for trash service is directly correlated to the amount of trash generated.
Recycling costs at many Colorado Springs disposal companies, including Bestway, are a flat rate of about $5 a month.
Cardboard tends to take up a lot of the volume of a trash bin, compared with more compact materials, requiring a user to procure a larger per-month trash allowance. Moving cardboard to recycling, on the other hand, does not increase the user's cost because it's fixed.
Before the city can reap these benefits, Johnson and her team will need to address some hurdles.
First, data collection. You can't improve what you can't measure, Johnson said.
Next, infrastructure. Curbside recycling is not ubiquitous across the city, and not everyone has the time or money to drive their recycling to a public drop-off center.
Many apartment complexes and businesses, which the study says make up nearly 60 percent of the waste in Colorado, lack recycling services. Although about half of Colorado's trash is organic material, such as food scraps and yard waste, few businesses and residents have access to compost pickup.
As for financial, political and public backing, Colorado Springs has small government and pro-business policies, as opposed to recycling mandates, such as those in Fort Collins. With the potential economic advantages, though, Johnson holds onto the potential for businesses and the City Council to jump on the bandwagon.
"The point right now is to educate. Every material you'll touch is recyclable in some capacity," she said. "We hope that cardboard can act as a gateway to paper, then plastic and other recyclables. How hard is it really for me to toss something in one bin instead of the other?"