Today is America Recycles Day. Colorado’s recycling rate is shockingly low.

Alan Levine, Flickr

Today is America Recycles Day, a national holiday dedicated to the promotion and celebration of recycling. But a new report released yesterday shows that Colorado’s recycling rate falls far below the national average.

The report, published by the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG), shows that our statewide recycling rate is only 12 percent, compared to a national average of 35 percent.

Denver’s rate is only 18 percent, trailing the pack of other Front Range cities — Boulder, 54 percent; Loveland, 48 percent; Louisville, 61 percent — and ranking last among 10 “peer cities” the study used for comparison.

The recycling rate is calculated as the percentage of municipal solid waste that gets diverted from landfills. Diverted materials include the usual suspects, like paper, cardboard, glass and plastic, plus electronics, textiles, tires and compostable materials such as food and yard waste.

Throwing these valuable materials away is not only wasteful, but harmful to the environment. Landfills are a major source of methane pollution, a harmful greenhouse gas. The Lowry Landfill in Aurora is now designated as an EPA Superfund Site.

In annual city surveys, Denverites show a willingness to recycle: 88 percent said recycling is very important, and more than 80 percent think it should be mandatory.

So why the low rate?

One reason is the lack of composting services. “We’re just chucking tons of stuff into the trash that could be turned into compost,” says CoPIRG Director Danny Katz. According to the report, only 4 percent of Denver residents currently have composting bins.

Nearly half of all waste can be composted, but Denver doesn’t offer citywide composting services. Only certain areas have access to compost pickup, and interested residents have to pay $10 per month for composting. Compost and recycling are also collected less often than garbage. Compared to free and unlimited trash pickup, composting can seem like a costly and burdensome chore.

But perhaps the largest factor in Denver’s low recycling rate is access. The city provides recycling services — by request — to single-family residences and small apartment buildings. Recycling is voluntary, and while the majority of these residents have recycling bins by now, an estimated one in five still don’t.

But the one third of Denverites who live in bigger apartment complexes fare even worse. Buildings with eight or more units are exempt from city recycling, meaning those residents are either dependent on their landlords to find private collection services, or they have to do it themselves.

In its report, CoPIRG made several suggestions to improve Denver’s recycling rate, including making both recycling and composting services free and available to all residents. The city should also encourage businesses to divert their waste, the group says, and set an ambitious “Zero Waste Goal” for the near future. Lastly, the report suggests changing the incentive structure when it comes to trash pickup — those who waste more should have to pay more. CoPIRG suggests moving to a volume-based pricing structure by 2020.

Katz says achieving such goals requires residents to get involved and demand these changes. “If you don’t have a purple recycling bin, call the city to get one. Enroll in the compost program and for ten dollars a month get a green bin that can help reduce your waste stream by 50 percent. If you live in an apartment building that doesn’t offer recycling, call your landlord and let your City Council member and the mayor know,” he said.

“We know it’s what people want, and they should raise their voice. The only way we’re going to catch up to our peer cities is if we see some aggressive action,” he said.

Photo credit: Alan Levine, Creative Commons, Flickr