Low recycling rate could jump with Colorado bill’s ‘producer responsibility’ fees

Approved amendments exclude newspapers, agricultural packaging sold under local brand

By: - April 15, 2022 4:15 am

Receptacles for recycling, compost and trash are seen in downtown Boulder on Aug. 14, 2021. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

Colorado lawmakers want to ramp up recycling participation in the state by requiring producers to pay into a fund based on their product packaging and then using that money to create a statewide recycling program.

“This is a big problem and it calls for dramatic action. Consumers can’t tackle our waste problem alone,” Rep. Lisa Cutter said during committee testimony on April 7. “Experts from all over the world believe that there must be shared responsibility to make transformational change.”

Cutter, a Littleton Democrat, is the prime sponsor of HB22-1355, dubbed the “Producer Responsibility” bill. A 2021 report found that only 15% of waste in Colorado is recycled, well below the national average of 32%, and bill sponsors want to increase that rate.

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The bill passed on a 7-5 vote from the House Committee on Energy and Environment on Wednesday after being laid over from its first hearing on April 7. It is co-prime sponsored by Sen. Kevin Priola, a Republican from Henderson, and Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Democrat from Denver.

The bill would require companies that sell products in the state to pay into a producer responsibility organization, or PRO, also known as an extended producer responsibility program, with dues based on how much waste comes from materials such as the boxes, envelopes and filling the company uses to ship products. Dues would be less for materials that are easy to recycle or have a high level of recycled content, which bill sponsors hope will encourage better design.

“Costs for Colorado would be set by the PRO and determined by the needs assessment at PRO plan. So it’s going to be based on what Colorado actually needs, not just some random amount,” Cutter explained.

Companies that report less than $5 million in gross revenue or use less than 1 ton of packaging materials would be exempt from paying dues. It also wouldn’t apply to packaging for things like toxic materials, medical supplies and bound books. Approved amendments also exclude paper products used for local newspapers and packing materials for agricultural products grown in Colorado and sold under the farmer’s name.

The revenue would be used to expand recycling infrastructure in the state, with the goal being a no-cost recycling service for all single and multi-family residences. The program would contract with private and public service providers.

Too often, as consumers, we’re left to figure out what to do with the glass, aluminum, paper and plastic packaging that comes with our stuff.

– Danny Katz, of Colorado Public Interest Research Group

Cities like Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins already have curbside recycling programs automatically available to residents. Other cities might require residents to subscribe, and some do not have any program at all due to cost and logistical challenges. And different recycling programs can handle different materials, something that Cutter said creates a confusing “patchwork” of experiences that suppresses participation. Part of the bill also calls for public education.

“Too often, as consumers, we’re left to figure out what to do with the glass, aluminum, paper and plastic packaging that comes with our stuff. Producer responsibility will help cut down on the amount of unnecessary packaging that inundates us right now, and will fund a robust recycling system to ensure the stuff that wraps our goods is collected and reused,” Danny Katz, the executive director of the left-leaning Colorado Public Interest Research Group, said in a statement.

Oregon and Maine became the first states last year to create producer responsibility programs and there are similar, long-standing programs in Europe and Canada.

Advocates say the policy would not only up recycling rates in the state by making it easier for residents to participate, but it would also increase the feed supply to make products out of recycled materials. Experts say that materials like glass and aluminum are increasingly hard to come by and often come from out of state.

“There has never been a better time to invest in recycling, among historic supply chain disruptions, climate change and plastics,” said Kate Bailey, research and policy director at the nonprofit recycler Eco-Cycle who led the bill’s policy development. She called it both an environmental and economic opportunity.

The policy in Colorado would roll out over several years, with full plan implementation in 2026 guided by an initial advisory board and study.

Program could hurt small business, opponents say

Those who testified against the bill focused on the structure of the program and how it could hurt smaller operations.

“For a bill focused on ESG members, it really doesn’t do a lot for the environment,” Carlin Walsh, the owner of Elevation Beer Company, said. “It creates inequity. It ultimately creates an organization governed by special interest groups, not its members, but the members are required by law to pay and join that private nonprofit organization.

Shawnee Adelson, executive director of the Colorado Brewers Guild, testified that while environmental stewardship is a priority for brewers, a program like this could be a financial hardship for small businesses. Adelson said the guild was part of the stakeholder group that gave input on the creation of the bill.

“The closest functioning consumer packaging PRO that includes beverage containers is in Quebec. If our taxes are similar, a medium-sized Colorado craft brewery could pay $50,000 per year,” she said.

Sam DeWitt, the state government affairs manager for the Brewers Association, testified that the bill would put smaller breweries at a disadvantage because they don’t have the market power to buy the type of sustainable packaging the bill would incentivize. He said that to get printed-on cans from the Colorado-based Ball Corporation, a business has to order at least 1 million cans, which is not feasible for a small brewer. Those brewers tend to work around that by using single-use labels or shrink wrap, which aren’t easily recyclable.

“Not only are we not in a position to demand changes to our packaging, but the fees Colorado brewers will face will be higher relative to those paid by our national and multinational competitors because of this inability,” he said.

“Ball is named a few times in these proceedings as this great supporter of this legislation. They aren’t paying into it. They are a producer to a producer, so they have no responsibility in this producer responsibility organization. But that onus is going to fall on these local craft brewers. That doesn’t seem right to us,” DeWitt said.

Other opponents said there is not enough data from other implemented producer responsibility organizations in the United States and urged lawmakers to find other proven strategies to encourage recycling and reduce material waste.

The bill now heads to the House Appropriations Committee.

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Sara Wilson
Sara Wilson

Sara Wilson covers state government, Colorado's congressional delegation, energy and other stories for Newsline. She formerly was a reporter for The Pueblo Chieftain, where she covered politics and government in southern Colorado. Wilson earned a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and as a student she reported on Congress and other federal beats in Washington, D.C.

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