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New Colorado program will make recycling free for everyone

Free recycling in Colorado becoming a reality after state lawmakers move forward
Free recycling in Colorado becoming a reality after state lawmakers move forward 03:44

Colorado is about to have a statewide free recycling program that will increase recycling access to hundreds of thousands of people. 

The bill creating the Producer Responsibility Program passed in Colorado two years ago, but this spring, state lawmakers gave it the green light to move forward for implementation through a Joint Budget Action Committee approval

The program will require companies that package their products in single-use materials – like foods, beverages, and other items – to pay a fee, which will pay for everyone across the state who has access to curbside trash pickup to also receive curbside recycling pickup for free. 

Cans sit in a recycling bin outside Cactus Jack's Saloon and Grill in Evergreen Kati Weis, CBS News Colorado

"The fee is assessed on each piece of packaging that is used, and that fee is used for two things: it's used to send a signal to the producer, use less packaging, and the other part is to support our recycling system, which we pay for now," says Henry Stiles with Environment Colorado, one of the advocacy organizations that helped lead the charge for the program's creation. 

According to a needs assessment study for the program, published in March, approximately 500,000 additional households will receive curbside recycling in municipalities, and an additional 100,000 - 200,000 households will receive service in other areas.

Additionally, the program will create free recycling for people living in multi-family housing – like condo and apartment buildings – who also don't currently have access to convenient in-house recycling pickup. 

You can read the entire study here:

People living in HOA communities that currently cover trash and recycling pickup costs through HOA fees on homeowners are hoping they will receive discounts since that will be one less cost for the HOA to cover. 

Programs like this have been successfully running in some European countries and Canada for years.

In Colorado, Stiles says he's hopeful it will help keep future plastics and recyclable waste out of our state's waterways. 

South Platte River in North Denver  Kati Weis, CBS News Colorado

"I'm very hopeful it will make a dent," Stiles said. "I was just part of a river cleanup at the Platte River about a month ago. We pulled 600 pounds of trash out of the Platte River. Most of that was plastics, and this stuff does break down into what we call microplastics... pieces of plastic that are about five millimeters. We are finding those in all our streams and wildlife ingest them and it causes all kinds of problems."

But some companies in the grocery industry have criticized laws like this, saying European models won't work in the US, and some other critics contend that while the program has good intentions, if it's not properly implemented, it will only increase product costs back onto consumers. 

Stiles said that hasn't been the case in other areas. 

Henry Stiles with Environment Colorado Kati Weis, CBS News Colorado

"What we've seen with that is not so much, because there's so many packages sent, this fee is going to be very small, and there's a few studies showing that there's no effect at all," Stiles said. "Right now, you're paying your local government taxes and fees to pay for this recycling, and you won't be paying that anymore. So basically, it's shifting the cost from those local governments to the producers."

Officials with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will be in charge of enforcing the new program. A spokesperson for CDPHE tells CBS News Colorado in a written statement that they will "regularly study consumer cost impacts, to ensure producers shoulder the financial burden." 

"The Producer Responsibility Program for Statewide Recycling will provide a convenient, cost-effective, statewide recycling system, with free and equitable recycling for all residents. The program is projected to increase recycling rates for paper and packaging from 25% up to 58% by 2035 and expand curbside recycling, at no cost to residents or the state," the spokesperson for CDPHE said. "The Producer Responsibility Program will ensure that the producers of the covered materials, which includes consumer-facing packaging and paper products, will fund all components of the system without passing along potential costs of this program to residents."

Some people living and working in more rural areas are excited about the potential the new program will bring. 

Megan Mitchell, who owns Cactus Jack's Saloon and Grill in Evergreen, has been pushing for better recycling opportunities for a few years. 

Megan Mitchell talks with customers at her restaurant in Evergreen Kati Weis, CBS News Colorado

She says since 2007, her restaurant has made recycling a priority, despite how difficult and inconvenient it is in her town. 

She and her employees spend ten hours a week sorting the recycling and taking it to the nearest recycling center, where she spends $200 a month to dispose of it. 

"It makes me a little angry that I have to spend my day this way," Mitchell said while sorting the recycling outside her restaurant. "I didn't choose for them to send me everything that comes with it. I just bought that product. They are very much a stakeholder in this and responsible. I've done my part all along, I feel like they should do their part as well."

Megan Mitchell sorts recycling outside her restaurant Kati Weis, CBS News Colorado

Right now, program leaders are ironing out the details on how to best implement the law.

Suzanne Jones, former mayor of Boulder, and head of an environmental nonprofit called Eco-cycle, says her organization will be working on the key parts of the implementation process for the next year and a half, including that community choice is maintained.

Jones says the program introduces a concept called "eco-modulation," which makes sure that the brands are setting the price per unit of packaging in a way that incentivizes the reduction of single-use packaging. 

For example, polystyrene packaging can't be recycled, so the program will charge a higher fee on consumers if they use it in their packaging. 

She also told CBS News Colorado in a phone interview that Eco-Cycle is also collaborating with program leaders to put measures in place to ensure that "the materials collected for recycling are actually recycled, and are made into new products in a responsible way... so people have faith in the system, and we are achieving circularity."

Jones says residents should experience free recycling by January 2026, while small businesses should feel the benefits within the following two years. 

According to the CDPHE, a plan proposal for the statewide recycling system is due by February 1, 2025, where CDPHE and the Producer Responsibility Advisory Board must approve the plan before it is finally implemented. 

To follow the Program's progress, find information about monthly Advisory Board meetings, and learn about upcoming stakeholder engagement opportunities, visit the Producer Responsibility Program webpage.

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