Denver proposes stronger recycling rules to combat climate change, reduce waste

By: - April 19, 2022 2:24 pm

Bins for various forms of refuse — purple to recycle, green for compost, black for landfill waste — sit in an alley in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Denver on Nov. 18, 2020. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

Denver officials on Tuesday laid out plans to nearly double the city’s rate of recycling and composting over the next five years, boosting local efforts that have long lagged behind the national average as part of a broader program to fight climate change.

The city’s Sustainable Resource Management Plan is the first comprehensive update to the city’s waste and recycling strategy in 12 years. Its recommended targets include an overall waste diversion rate of 50% — almost twice the city’s current rate — by 2027, followed by a 70% goal by 2032. Diversion rates are a weight-based calculation of the amount of disposed material that is diverted from a landfill, either through recycling or composting.

“Through focused efforts over the last ten years, Denver has been able to increase its diversion rate from 13% in 2010 to 26% in 2020,” Grace Rink, executive director of Denver’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability, and Resiliency, said in a statement. “While we have made progress, this rate has remained stagnant and falls well below the national average of 34 percent. Reaching a higher diversion rate will require new strategies, and this plan will get us there.”


The report’s policy recommendations are topped by a proposed “universal waste reduction ordinance,” which would include recycling requirements for commercial and multi-family buildings, as well as new rules for the construction sector. It calls for the city to “explore the efficacy” of a cardboard waste disposal ban, which the report says could “lay the groundwork for future disposal bans such as food waste.”

Though they’re a relatively small source of greenhouse gases compared to other sectors, landfills emit significant amounts of methane as a result of decomposing food waste and other organic matter.

“Even accounting for Denver’s future growth, achieving a 50% diversion rate will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 3,000,000 (tons), the equivalent of taking over 600,000 cars off the road,” the report says.

The plan also endorses the adoption of residential waste disposal fees — floated for years by city officials who say that such “pay as you throw” programs have helped other cities achieve far higher diversion rates — by the end of the year.

Under the city’s proposed fee structure, Denver residents would be charged between $9 and $21 per collected trash bin, depending on its size, with sliding-scale discounts for low-income residents covering up to 100% of the cost. Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration has said the funds raised by the fee program would help it expand a variety of waste reduction efforts, including a long-anticipated expansion of recycling services to a weekly pickup schedule.

Cheap landfill costs and a lack of recycling infrastructure have long kept Colorado’s waste diversion rates well below the national average. In 2017, state officials set a goal of reaching a 28% statewide diversion rate by 2021; instead, Colorado’s rate declined in recent years, falling from 17.2% in 2018 to just 15% in 2020, less than half the national rate of 35%.

Recycling advocates have touted House Bill 22-1355, legislation moving through the General Assembly, as a potentially “transformational” change in state recycling policy. The so-called “producer responsibility” bill would require manufacturers of many kinds of products to pay into a fund based on their product packaging, which would be used to expand recycling infrastructure across the state.

Denver officials will brief City Council on their expanded waste reduction proposal in a meeting of the Land Use, Transportation, and Infrastructure Committee next week.


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Chase Woodruff
Chase Woodruff

Reporter Chase Woodruff covers the environment, the economy and other stories for Colorado Newsline.