Colorado lawmakers have given final thumbs up to a recycling overhaul that spreads responsibility from consumers to producers of all goods sold in the state — an estimated 1,500 companies offering items packaged in plastic, glass, metal and cardboard.
Companies would pay fees into a “producer responsibility” fund to support statewide curbside recycling and re-use industries under the measure that lawmakers passed Wednesday — now headed to Gov. Jared Polis for a signature to become law. And companies would get first dibs to recover their own materials.
This overhaul would position Colorado as the third state in the nation (after Maine and Oregon) joining Canada, Europe and others around the planet to attack waste sent to landfills by targeting products and packaging. Waste buried in landfills emits heat-trapping methane gas and federal authorities have identified landfills as a major cause of climate warming, which leads to increased fires, drought and other calamities.
Colorado’s legislation — approved on a 21-14 vote in the Senate and a 40-25 vote in the House — had some support from producers keen to get back more material for re-use and would set up a system for charging companies less when they design products and packaging that are easier to recycle.
“This is the most significant recycling policy we could have passed and groundbreaking across the country,” said Kate Bailey, policy and research director for Eco-Cycle, a Boulder-based recycling organization that promotes recycling statewide.
“Every resident in Colorado and every local government will benefit. This will reduce climate pollution, reduce plastic pollution, reduce unnecessary packaging, save money for local governments, and build stronger and more resilient local supply chains that will help Colorado manufacturers and boost local economies.”
Lawmakers took action in an effort to reverse Colorado’s status as a recycling laggard. The rate of recycling in Colorado — 15.3% of the waste generated in the state, down from 15.9% in 2020 and 17% in 2018, state data shows — remains less than half the national average rate around 32%.
Gov. Jared Polis in 2020 declared Colorado would move from being a laggard to a leader. A state goal set in 2017 calls for recycling 45% of trash statewide by 2036.
But a paper industry group is fighting Colorado’s measure. “We urge Governor Polis to veto HB22-1355. An Extended Producer Responsibility scheme is not the right policy approach for sustainable paper products,” American Forest & Paper Association vice president Terry Webber said, warning it could raise costs for consumers. “Colorado should instead focus on addressing underfunded and underdeveloped recycling programs.”
Other opponents include the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Colorado Retail Council, Molson Coors, the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, the Colorado Hotel and Lodging Association, and the Plastics Industry Association.
Companies supporting Colorado’s measure include Walmart, L’Oreal, New Belgium Brewing, Dr. Pepper, Coca-Cola, Keurig, Danone, Nestle and Unilever.
“We think this is a bold solution that will boost the recycling rate for all recycle-able materials in Colorado including bottles and cans,” said William Dermody, vice president of the American Beverage Association. “We want to increase the amount of bottles and cans that are collected so they can be re-made into new ones. Colorado is the first state to really incorporate our principles. ….. Producers can get back their own materials to make new products. We want to reduce the amount of new plastics we use.”
Polis “will review the legislation when it reaches his desk,” gubernatorial spokeswoman Melissa Dworkin said.
The estimated 1,500 to 2,000 companies that sell products in Colorado would pay fees, with a few exceptions such as sellers of pharmaceuticals packaged to thwart children for safety. The fees often would amount to a penny or less per product.
Recycling proponents pointed to recycling fees that companies pay in a Canadian program as examples of what companies selling products likely would pay — per pound — in Colorado: 3 cents for aluminum cans, 4 cents for newspaper, 6 cents for glass bottles, 13 cents for plastic water and soda bottles, 22 cents for plastic bags and films, and 30 cents for polystyrene plastic.
The fees would feed a fund expected to gain several million dollars a year to augment public funding for recycling services and re-use industries around the state. A Producer Responsibility Organization — at least 27 of these have been created around the world — would administer the program. Colorado officials and producers would develop the program over the next few years for a launch in 2026.
“It is a really big deal. It can really help lift recycling in Colorado,” said Charles Kamenides, president of the board for Recycle Colorado and waste services manager for the city of Longmont northwest of Denver.
“The more we recycle, the more we reduce our carbon footprint and the cost to manufacture things. There’s a value to all the materials we have that we can use,” Kamenides said. “Sending waste to a landfill is almost like throwing money into a landfill. If that cardboard, paper and plastic can have value, let’s re-use it if we can.”
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