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Denver's Recycling Rate One Of The Country's Lowest

By Kelly Werthmann

DENVER (CBS4) - When it comes to recycling, Denver is basically garbage.

According to a new report released by non-profits Eco-Cycle and Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG), Denver's recycling rate is 18 percent. The national average is 34 percent.

"One of the biggest reasons for that is we're just not offering the services that Denver residents need and want," Danny Katz, Director of CoPIRG, said. "In fact about a third of residents in Denver live in apartment buildings with seven or more units and those apartment buildings don't have to provide recycling options."

About 82 percent of households in Denver participate in recycling. Residents have access to individual purple recycle bins, but have to pay to have composting bins.

(credit: CBS)

It's easy to do the wrong thing and it's harder to do the right thing which is ensuring that our waste is getting to where it should be, composting and recycling," Katz said.

In their report, Eco-Cycle and CoPIRG compared Denver's recycling rate to peer cities like Seattle, WA, Austin, TX and Charlotte, NC. The report says Denver "is at the back of the pack" and it has a lot to do with options.

"They're picking up recycling more often, they're ensuring everybody has one of those green compost bins," Katz said of the peer cities with double Denver's recycling rate or more. "They're doing a lot more to make sure they're residents have access to these basic things."

The report acknowledges that Denver is trying, giving kudos to Mayor Michael Hancock for recognizing that Denver can and should do more to be truly sustainable. Mayor Hancock held the 2nd Annual Sustainability Summit on Tuesday where city officials said recycling options were discussed.

"A lot of the discussion today is focused around how can we get the recycling rates higher and what does that take," Charlotte Pitt, Manager with Denver Solid Waste Management, told CBS4. "The recommendations from the [Eco-Cycle and CoPIRG] report are actually pretty much in line with what the city recommendations are."

Pitt told CBS4's Kelly Werthmann that the city is working on a master plan to improve recycling rates. Up until a hauler licensing ordinance was passed last year, it was difficult for the City of Denver to collect data about commercial recycling, including for apartment complexes. She said a report on that issue is expected to be released next month which could include ways the city can get involved or create recycling policies.

"Commercial recycling is kind of a free market," Pitt said. "The whole region struggles."

When it comes to creating recycling policies, Pitt added it is difficult for two reasons: lack of landfill crises and low disposal rates.

"We've never had that level of concern of where are we going to put our waste," Pitt said. "When you don't have a crisis, you don't drive policy initiatives. The second piece is in Colorado we see very low landfill disposal fees, so it's really hard for recycling and composting to compete economically when it's really just very cheap to throw it away."

That said, Pitt made it clear that her staff regularly audit and check up on recycling facilities that city contracts out. She said whatever items residents put in their recycle bins is properly disposed of and recycled.

"Denver is taking steps in the right direction, but we need to do more and more quickly," Katz said.

Among the solutions listed in the recycling report were recommendations to ensure all residents have access to recycling, provide composting service at no additional cost, financial incentives and creating a more ambitious recycling goal that puts the city on a path toward zero waste.

"Faster just means money," Pitt said. "I think the city is investing in the resources that we need, but it is a slow process."

Before the end of the year, Pitt said two more recycling trucks will be added to the fleet. Also, four new composting routes are being added in 2017, more than the city has ever added before.

"Recycling is voluntary in Denver," Pitt said. "We have 82 percent of all our households signed up and the only reason they're signed up is because it's just the right thing to do. There's no economic incentive, there's not a mandate and we think that's pretty fantastic."

The full recycling report can be downloaded at

Kelly Werthmann joined the CBS4 team in 2012 as the morning reporter, covering national stories like the Aurora Theater Shooting and devastating Colorado wildfires. She now anchors CBS4 Weekend Morning News and reports during the week. Connect with her on Facebook or Twitter @KellyCBS4.

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