Boulder County business owner Tom Horst uses the recycling drop-off at the Boulder County Recycling Center on Dec. 14. Credit: Anthony Albidrez

During her organization’s annual report on recycling and composting in Colorado, Eco-Cycle Executive Director Suzanne Jones started with the bad news. In 2020, the statewide recycling and composting rate was only 15%. That’s less than half the national average of 32% and well off the state’s goal to reach 28% this year.

Jones delivered her assessment during Empower Our Future’s virtual Empower Hour event on Dec. 9, the latest in the monthly series of presentations from climate experts hosted by the Boulder clean energy nonprofit. 

Eco-Cycle, another local nonprofit, runs the Boulder County Recycling Center. The organization provides recycling collection to local businesses and residents along with education programs to Boulder Valley schools. Founded in 1976, Eco-Cycle is one of the oldest and largest nonprofit recyclers in the U.S. The organization opened the Rocky Mountain region’s first materials recycling facility in 1979.

Jones has long been involved in Boulder climate policy and politics. In addition to holding the top post at Eco-Cycle since 2014, she served on the Boulder City Council from 2011 to 2019, and was mayor during her last four years in office. Now she’s leveraging her city government experience to help build zero-waste communities in Boulder County.

“I think a lot of people don’t make the connection between recycling and composting and climate solutions,” Jones said in her Empower Hour introduction. “Our mission and how we operate is to try out solutions here in Boulder County, refine them, and then ripple them out into the world in hopes of a more sustainable, equitable and climate-resilient future.” 

Throughout the hourlong presentation, Jones highlighted three ways recycling and composting reduce climate pollution: saving energy by manufacturing goods with recycled materials, reducing landfill emissions of greenhouse gases and storing carbon in soil through composting.

After opening with the state’s lackluster recycling and composting numbers, Jones delivered a bit of good news. The city of Boulder boasts the best recycling and composting rate in the state, diverting 53% of waste in 2020. With 86,000 tons of material recovered during that time, Boulder’s reduced emissions were equivalent to removing 28,000 cars from the road for a year.

Zero-Waste Ordinance

The implementation of its 2015 Universal Zero-Waste Ordinance is one reason for Boulder’s relative recycling success. The law “requires all properties, businesses and waste haulers to provide composting, recycling and landfill collection services to tenants, residents, customers and employees.” Six out of Colorado’s 10 largest cities do not automatically provide recycling to all residents, which Jones sees as a significant contributor to the low statewide recycling rate.

But when it comes to reaching the city’s goal of recycling and composting 85% of waste by 2025, Boulder still has a long way to go. And the state has even further to go to catch up. Eco-Cycle advocates for structural policy changes  locally and statewide that could help close the gap.

One way to do that, Jones said, is for Colorado to enact an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) law in 2022.

To support this argument, Eco-Cycle’s 2020 report points out the success of Colorado’s EPR program for paint, which launched in 2015. According to the report, the benefits of the program include “increased paint recycling rates, greater access to collection sites, and reduced costs to cities and counties that previously paid for this service.”

Such a law would shift the onus for funding and providing recycling services from municipalities and individuals onto consumer goods manufacturers. Eco-Cycle argues this shift would improve the state’s waste diversion rate while creating a more equitable recycling system. Many towns do not offer universal recycling programs simply because they are expensive, and residents living in multi-family properties in particular lack access to these services.

The next few years will be crucial to Boulder’s progress toward its zero-waste goal. Reaching an 85% waste diversion rate by 2025 will require plenty of effort and creative solutions. But as Jones’ presentation underscores, Boulder at least has no shortage of engaged residents or experienced community organizations pushing for climate and waste action.

For more information on recycling and composting guidelines in Boulder, see Eco-Cycle’s resources here.