Most people assume Denver to be a leading city in environmental matters and sustainability measures. The outdoor culture draws so many transplants, and with it, numerous people looking for a sustainable lifestyle in a progressive city. With the legalization of marijuana, a slew of food waste diversion organizations and an increasing number of chefs committed to sustainability in the food industry, it’s easy to assume the Mile High City is ahead of the curve. Unfortunately, that’s not the case when it comes to Denver’s recycling and waste diversion practices.

READ: Why Denver Sucks at Recycling

In 2016, EcoCycle published a report that cited Colorado’s residential waste recycling rate at 12%, while the national average registered at 35%. The city of Denver’s rate was 18 % – not much higher than the state’s. With many other cities on Colorado’s front range doing much better – Fort Collins at 32%, Boulder at 54% and Loveland at 61% in 2016 – it’s past time for Denverites to make a serious change in their lifestyles and to learn more about the importance of recycling and doing it correctly. The burden of improving our recycling falls to both citizens and government officials. It will take participation from the whole community to make a positive change.

Why Recycle?

Alpine Recycling Facility – Photo courtesy of Alpine Waste & Recycling on Facebook

Though most people know recycling is important, many people do not understand the full impact that recycling has on the environment. Recycling not only diverts waste from landfills, but it allows new products to be made with recycled materials. A report released by the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG) shows that almost 95% of waste in Colorado could be recycled, reused or composted. With those numbers, Denverites have the potential to greatly improve the waste diversion rate in the city. Plus, simply increasing the diversion to 34% could result in saving one million dollars in landfill fees, according to the city.

Fortunately, Denver has the capacity to process quite a wide range of recyclable materials, whereas many smaller cities across the US do not. Diverting waste from the landfill to recycling bins not only saves the city money, but has the potential to provide income to both residents and the city itself. EcoCycle estimates that recycling creates an average of 10 times more jobs than simply sending trash to the landfill. The local economy is stimulated even further when those recycled materials are sold. Understanding the impact of recycling in the community is the first step in improving the diversion rate and motivating residents to do the right thing when it comes to taking care of the environment.

How You Can Recycle Better and Reduce Your Waste

Sorting Recyclables – Photo courtesy of Alpine Waste & Recycling

Darla Arians, a Division Manager at Boulder County’s Resource Conservation office, highlighted the danger of including nonrecyclable materials in with your recycling pickup. “It is detrimental to the system because a contaminated stream decreases our ability to properly sort materials into their respective categories.” In order to ensure the products you are recycling are processed and the material is reutilized, learn more about what you can recycle in your home or office waste pickup. If you aren’t sure where to toss something away, consult the city’s website and resources. This waste wizard allows users to type in the item they are disposing, and it generates the correct bin – recycling, compost or landfill. This tool is also available on the Denver Trash and Recycling app for both iPhone and Android.

There are a number of places that will take various harder-to-toss items and dispose of them properly. Spring Back Colorado and A Bedder World recycle old mattresses, SustainAbility and Blue Star Recyclers take electronics and small appliances and Junk King hauls a wide range of unwanted items. Also considering donating unwanted items such as clothes or furniture to thrift stores like Arc instead of tossing them in the trash.

These common recycling myths and misconceptions can cause confusion in front of the bins.

  • Grocery bags cannot be recycled in at-home recycling collection. The same is true for all recyclable film plastic and new Amazon shipping envelopes. These items must be taken to participating grocery stores. This also means that any recyclable materials bagged in plastic bags are usually diverted to the landfill.
  • Many paper products like coffee cups, frozen food boxes and take-out boxes contain a plastic lining that makes them harder to recycle. Find out where your recycling is processed and call the facility to determine if you can recycle these items at home.
  • Scrap metal, such as old pots and pans, cannot be recycled. Instead, consider donating them to a local thrift store.
  • When food is left in recycled containers, it makes the sorting process less efficient and can damage the sorting equipment.
  • Plastic bottles or containers that contained soda, shampoo, milk and juice only need to be lightly rinsed before being recycled.
  • Plastic and paper labels do not need to be removed from bottles, jars or cans as they will also be burned off in the remanufacturing process.
  • Bottle caps can be recycled as long as they are screwed onto the bottle.
  • Pizza boxes can be both recycled or composted, even with grease stains.
  • Aluminum foil can be recycled if it is crunched into a ball two inches or larger.
  • Don’t flatten or crunch aluminum cans or containers to ensure these materials are sorted correctly in the facility.
  • Plant-based plastic products cannot be recycled as it contains plant material as well as plastic particles. Bio-plastic is also not compostable unless has a BPI certification printed or stamped on the cup or container. Even if it is certified compostable, typically only commercial recycling facilities can compost these materials, not home curbside pickup.

What Else Can Be Improved?

Recycling Bales – Photo courtesy of Agecko

Denver is not all bad when it comes to recycling. Our recycling collection is impressively clean – only 10% of what is sent to the facility should never have been thrown into the recycling bin. Compared to other cities at or over 30%, it does seem that Denver knows what it’s doing when it comes to recycling. But the reality is that so much of what could be recycled ends up in the landfill because recycling is complicated and the city has a history of allowing the rates to be substandard.

The same excuses Denver makes for being historically bad at recycling could be made by the city of Boulder, but instead, this Colorado city is a national leader. Boulder was one of the first communities to start a recycling program back in the ’70s. In 2016, Boulder’s waste diversion rate was 54% compared to Denver’s 18%, according to EcoCycle. Instead of allowing our city to make excuses for the poor job we’ve done at recycling over the years, we should follow Boulder’s example and utilize tactics that other large cities have implemented to improve our recycling situation.

Boulder-based EcoCycle also reported in 2018 that Boulder’s high recycling rate is supported by its Universal Zero Waste Ordinance. This effort requires that recycling and composting is available in all businesses, apartments, homes and at all special events in Boulder. On a walk around downtown Boulder, residents and visitors are able to properly sort their disposables in the trash, recycling and compost bins on the streets and sidewalks. But even this still does not compare to other cities, such as Seattle and San Francisco, who threaten to fine residents for improper recycling or composting. Though Denver has not committed to any of these tactics, they have focused on improving waste diversion over the last six years.

In 2013, the city of Denver attempted to enact an aggressive environmental program with its Sustainability Goals to reach by 2020. One of their hopes was to increase the city’s facility recycling rate to 40% or greater as well as the citywide recycling rate to 34% or greater. The baseline for those goals on a residential level was a diversion rate of 14% in 2012. By the end of October in 2018, Denver’s residential recycling rate increased to 22%. Jerry Tinianow, Denver’s Chief Sustainability Officer, commented on this progress. “To go from 14 to 22% in six years, that’s an increase in diversion by over 50%, which is not a bad number,” he explained. Nevertheless, he continued on to acknowledge that the city is still 12% away from their goal, with less than a year left to go.

While the improvement is significant, it seems unlikely that Denver’s waste diversion rate will increase substantially to meet their goal by the deadline. “We’ve really played all our cards at this point,” Tinianow reported, “except for beginning to change the economics of trash. To charge for throwing things into the trash, while at the same time continuing to provide recycling for free and beginning to provide composting for free as well.”

In addition to improving waste diversion, the city is also working to improve the market for recycled materials in the area. “Recycling is only as good as the folks who want to use the raw material,” explained Charlotte Pitt, Interim Director of Solid Waste Management in Denver. Part of their waste management plan is teaming up with The Recycling Partnership to ensure the companies with Colorado factories that are putting plastic into the world are also making sure those products are recycled and utilized to their full potential. This organization is helping the city of Denver hold large corporate entities such as Coca Cola, who have a vested interest in recycling, accountable for the lifetime of the materials they create.

How You Can Ask Others to Reduce Waste

Photo by Brittany Werges

As we get closer to the mayoral election on May 7, we have the perfect opportunity to demand more environmental policies that will make positive changes. Ask the elected mayor to prioritize recycling and other waste diversion programs in the form of funding, policy and programming. These could include expanding recycling services to all apartments and corporate buildings, implementing fines for disposing of recyclables in the trash or incentivizing recycling with a can and bottle fee, which could be returned upon depositing the item at a redemption center.

While there are a number of things the city could do to improve waste diversion in Denver, there are other tactics that any resident can utilize to make a difference and protect the environment.

  • Once a mayor is elected, hold them accountable for finally implementing the pay-as-you-throw trash system and create relationships with your city council member to ensure it passes.
  • Sign this letter to Mayor Hancock, asking for Denver to adopt Zero Waste solutions or write your own letter to the mayor about your environmental concerns.
  • Sign up to be an Eco-Leader and learn Zero Waste practices from experts at EcoCycle.

“At heart, people in Denver want to do the right thing,” Tinianow commented. Denver’s poor recycling rate is not due to the fact that residents don’t care. The reality is that recycling is complicated, and in a city like Denver, it can be difficult to access. While demanding the government implement better systems and allocate more money to waste diversion will be helpful in improving Denver’s situation, it’s also important that all consumers are more aware of their waste in the first place.