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America Recycles Week begins

Trash cans, recycling and compost containers line an alley in Longmont Colorado, one of several Front Range cities to offer curbside compost pickup.
Maeve Conran
Rocky Mountain Community Radio
Trash cans, recycling and compost containers line an alley in Longmont Colorado, one of several Front Range cities to offer curbside compost pickup.

America Recycles Week runs through November 18.

This year's week of awareness comes on the heels of electoral wins for a nationwide smattering of ballot initiatives on recycling.

One of those successful initiatives was Denver Ordinance 306, also known as The Waste No More Measure.

It will expand curbside recycling and composting in Denver, from single family residences to multi-family housing, apartment buildings, and to businesses that produce food.

For more on the logistics of large scale recycling, Shannon Young spoke with Keefe Harrison, founder and CEO of the Recycling Partnership.

Shannon Young: Start by explaining what America Recycles Week is about and what it seeks to accomplish.

Keefe Harrison: America Recycles Week is really about understanding how this US recycling system works.

The public is interested in recycling, in fact, we know that 80% of the public really believes that recycling is an important part of protecting the environment.

But we also know that they're confused, this is changing, new bills are passing, things that didn't used to be recyclable are, and we see in this change some public confusion.

So this week is about really grounding the importance of recycling, not just for the environment, but also for the economy.

Shannon Young: Recycling rates have improved over the past decades. What are the contributing factors to those gains and what more needs to be?

Keefe Harrison: So when we look at what makes a successful recycling system, we see a few things.

One, can people recycle? Can they do it at home?

And right now, we know in the greater Denver area, about 40% of single family and multi-family homes combined can recycle at home.

So we need to improve that number.

The second thing we look at is do they?

So we worked in Denver a few years ago on recycling, specific to can recycling, we were really interested in those aluminum beverage containers and steel soup cans.

And what we found was about half of all the cans that could be recycled were, and the rest were in the trash. So can people, do people (recycle)?

And then the third thing is about infrastructure.

We know that we need a stronger US infrastructure to make more things recyclable, and that really serves US businesses as they turn old things into new things.

Shannon Young: Now Denver voters passed the Waste No More measure by nearly 70%, so there's a mandate for it.

And waste management was also on the ballot in places like San Francisco and San Diego as well as in areas of Vermont and Michigan.

How significant is it to pass recycling laws via the ballot box, and how quickly can all of that infrastructure come into place once these measures come into effect?

Keefe Harrison: Policy is very important to fixing the US recycling system.

We did a study and we understand that a $17 billion investment in the US recycling system, meaning can people, do people and is there the right infrastructure would deliver a $30 billion return.

That's an investment we can't afford not to make.

So ballot initiatives like the local ones you just mentioned are super important, but they also tie up to the state level.

Colorado is one of four states that have passed producer responsibility laws.

That means that companies that make stuff and sell stuff in the state are responsible for making sure that the recycling system is on par to get them back.

We're really interested in seeing more of those state level initiatives tie into building a consistent recycling system across the entire country.

Shannon Young: That producer responsibility initiative is fairly recent and we haven't exactly seen it come into force in everyday life.

Back to the question about timelines, really, how long does it take to take something from an approved measure to an actual functional system, both in producer responsibility and for expanded curbside recycling?

Keefe Harrison: Right, we all want change right away, and that's what our nonprofit is all about.

But there is a timeline involved.

So the bill, the producer responsibility bill that Colorado passed this year, will start to take effect in 2025.

And so in the meantime, as we layer in public local initiatives like the bills that you mentioned that just passed, we're seeing a strengthening of a commitment, a resolve towards a common system, and that's a good thing.

Shannon Young: Where are the gaps when it comes to bringing recycling rates in the US up to what they are in a place like the European Union?

Keefe Harrison: What are the gaps for recycling across this country? It is actually everywhere.

We can't just point to one part of the country.

We have to look at every city and ask questions about equitable access.

Do we have equity when it comes to recyclability?

So we know that multi-family housing has a lower access rate, meaning fewer opportunities to recycle than single family, for example, and so we have to look at this from an equity point of view if we're really going to make the grade, and understanding that those gaps in equity exist in every community across the country.

Shannon Young: And there's also a degree of variance from municipality to municipality.

Are you aware of any efforts to create more uniform standards that would, for example, make recycling in Denver similar to what it's like here in Boulder?

Keefe Harrison: Absolutely.

So, policy is a great opportunity to harmonize what's recyclable.

I think we've all been in that situation where we've traveled to someone else's house where we've moved and we've thought, Well, wait a minute, ‘I can recycle this at home. Why can't I here?’

So the reason that there are those variances is that there are 9,000 different recycling programs across the country.

Recycling is a national theme, but it's delivered on the local level.

And so communities do their very best to recycle as many things as possible, but that inconsistency just comes into play with the variability of 9,000 recycling programs.

So as we look to policy to help level that playing field, the harmonization of what is and isn't recyclable will help.

It will also help companies be held accountable for designing more things to be recyclable.

We really want to see more policy that helps deliver a consistent design for recyclability and a better infrastructure to recover more things.

I think the public is looking for that too.

The public knows they want to do their part at home, but it needs to be easier, it needs to be clearer, and they need companies to do their part.

Shannon Young: And with those 9,000 separate recycling programs in effect throughout the United States, are there any of those programs in particular that you can point to as examples of really getting it right and that could serve to be a model for some of the other municipalities who may just be kind of starting off in their recycling journey?

Keefe Harrison: I think Denver is a great example of building consistency of access between multiple and single family homes.

We also look to Arvada, Colorado.

We recently worked with them to add cart access, that means those big recycling carts, to as many households as possible, because we know that the volume of the container really matters.

Think of all the things you're ordering online today that you didn't use to a few years ago, you need volume.

So when we look to success, we see success in every single state.

Denver and Arvada are two great examples for communities outside of Colorado to look towards.

Shannon Young: And as we wrap up, is there anything else that you would like to add that our listeners should know?

Keefe Harrison: So if you're in the public and you're thinking, 'wait, I just have a few questions about recycling,' you know, you can go to for questions.

And if you have one tip to share across America Recycles Day, share with your neighbors that it's important to put recycling in the bin, but never bag it, leave it loose.

This story from KGNU was shared with Aspen Public Radio via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Copyright 2022 Aspen Public Radio . To see more, visit Aspen Public Radio.