What is Colorado’s producer responsibility program and how can it reduce waste and pollution?

To protect our environment and reduce pollution, we need to reduce unnecessary packaging, especially plastics. Producer responsibility incentivizes companies to eliminate wasteful packaging and supports the expansion of recycling so we can reuse materials instead of mining, drilling, and logging to make our bags, boxes, and bottles.

Beyond plastic

Renee Grayson | CC-BY-2.0
Great blue heron next to plastic pollution

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Colorado is inundated with packaging

Let’s begin by looking at an example from everyday life – ordering a simple tube of toothpaste.

The tube itself is packaging and should be enough to keep the toothpaste from leaking out. But that tube may have additional packaging – packed in a box, wrapped in plastic, enclosed within another box that is cushioned with styrofoam peanuts (and maybe wrapped in plastic again) — all for a single product.

Now multiply that packaging by all the cans, bottles, jars, jugs, bags, boxes and wrapping that encase all the things we buy every day.

That is a lot of packaging.

Less packaging, less waste, less pollution

Whether it’s a box or a bag, a can or a bottle, plastic or aluminum, shrink wrapped or filled with foam peanuts, all of the stuff that packages what we buy took resources, energy and/or water to produce. That has big environmental impacts.

By reducing the amount of unnecessary packaging we create and use, we protect the environment by conserving water, energy and resources and forego much of the pollution that goes into making our stuff.

We get further environmental benefits by recycling the materials that go into the packaging we do need – collecting and reusing the cans, bottles, boxes and paper that can be turned into something else. For example:

Unfortunately, Colorado is particularly bad at recycling.

The latest State of Recycling and Composting in Colorado report, released by Eco-Cycle and the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG), found that Colorado’s recycling rate is persistently low at 16%, which is just half of the national average.

This means that 84% of our waste is not being recycled and ends up in landfills instead of going back to companies to reuse in new bottles, cans and boxes.

The problem with plastics

Plastic waste is a particularly bad problem.

By design, plastic takes hundreds of years to fully degrade — which means every piece of plastic ever produced is still out there and can harm wildlife when they mistake it for food.

Microplastics, plastics smaller than 5mm, have infiltrated our waterways and have been found in isolated areas in national parks and wilderness areas, carried there in the wind and the rain.

Our microplastics in waterways report found microplastics in 100% of the samples we took from 16 different waterways in Colorado.

Sadly, this scene, of a Great Blue Heron, a frequent inhabitant of the Colorado front range, surrounded by plastic garbage, is becoming commonplace.

Great blue heron next to plastic pollutionPhoto by Renee Grayson | CC-BY-2.0

 

We need to reduce the amount of plastic waste entering our state.

 

Producer Responsibility can reduce packaging, waste and pollution

In 2022, Colorado passed legislation, House Bill 22-1355, which will reduce unnecessary packaging and decrease pollution.

The bill has three major pieces.

First, producers will have to pay a new fee for every piece of packaging they use for their products. So if your product comes in a tube, packaged in a box and wrapped in shrink wrap, you’ll pay for each of those layers.

This price signal will incentivize companies to eliminate any unnecessary packaging. Maybe that tube of toothpaste doesn’t also need a box and shrink wrap.

And less packaging produced means less pollution produced, less drilling, less logging, and less mining.

Second, the money producers pay based on their remaining packaging will go into expanding and simplifying Colorado’s recycling system.

Right now, hundreds of thousands of Coloradans don’t have access to convenient recycling so a lot of glass, paper and aluminum that we could reuse is just going into the landfill.

The producer responsibility system will raise enough money to give everyone in Colorado recycling services as convenient as their trash services so more of that glass, paper and aluminum is collected and sent back to companies to use.

Third, the producer responsibility system will create a statewide recyclables list. This will make knowing what’s recyclable easier for Coloradans. But it will also allow us to charge companies more money if their packaging is not recyclable and not on the list, so we can further disincentivize non-recyclable products like many forms of plastic.

How much will the fee be per package?

Given the incredible amount of stuff that comes into our state each day, the fee added to the packaging will be very small – a fraction of a penny. In fact, one study found there was no price increase passed on to the consumer.

Overall, producer responsibility creates a positive feedback loop that reduces wasteful packaging and pollution:

  • More companies package products using recycled material.
  • Less stuff has to be thrown away or litter our communities because it can’t be recycled.
  • More recycled material gets collected in Colorado and sent back to manufacturers instead of thrown away.
  • And manufacturers use more recycled materials and less virgin materials to produce their stuff.

 

So what’s happening on Producer Responsibility now?

To create a producer responsibility program, the law mandated the creation of a Producer Responsibility Organization (PRO) that would be in charge of implementing and managing the program.

In Colorado the PRO is made up of manufacturers and will be responsible for raising the money, collecting packaging data, funding the expansion of recycling, and meeting the state’s recycling targets.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) chose the Circular Action Alliance (CAA) as our PRO.

The CAA’s first major requirement was to complete a statewide needs assessment to evaluate the recycling infrastructure throughout all geographic areas of the state to determine how much it would cost to expand recycling in Colorado.

What did we learn from the needs assessment?

The CAA developed three scenarios named “Low”, “Medium” and “High” based on the recycling rate that we want to achieve. The rates and costs are summarized in the table below.

According to the Colorado Needs Assessment, the state’s 2022 baseline recycling rate ranges from 22% to 28%. This differs from the 16% rate reported by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), mainly because the materials covered in the assessment do not encompass all the types of waste that CDPHE’s rate covers.

The good news – all three scenarios significantly boost Colorado’s recycling rate, getting us near the US average of 32% by 2030 and reaching the EPA’s National Recycling Goal of 50% by 2035 and would make us a national leader according to this study by Ball Corporation and Eunomia Research and Consulting.

Notice there is not a large cost difference between the three scenarios because the most significant cost is getting recycling to everyone and all three scenarios provide residential households with recycling services equivalent to trash (i.e. if you have curbside trash, curbside recycling should be available, the same for drop-off).

Around 500,000 more households in municipalities will gain access to curbside recycling, with an additional 100,000 to 200,000 households receiving this service in other regions.

Also factored into the costs of all three scenarios is education, estimated to be $10 per household for best practices. There are many studies showing education is prerequisite to a successful recycling program; the Assessment concludes: “Education programs for recycling impact the likelihood that a household with access to recycling will participate in the program, how much material will be recycled from each Household, and the quality of the material collection.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the other differences in the scenarios that the CAA developed.

Table 1: Consolidated overview of the scenarios, compiled and adapted from the Needs Assessment.

In the assessment, hard to recycle packaging refers to items like oil cans and pressurized cylinders, glass cleanup is the process of removing contaminants and non-glass materials from the collected glass, and the acronym MRF stands for Materials Recovery Facility, which are the facilities that sort all the stuff that go into our recycling bins so the materials (cardboard, paper, aluminum, etc) can be sent to a manufacturer to reuse.

Overall, all three scenarios would be a positive step and would improve our recycling rates.

 

What is the status of producer responsibility now?

The Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment (CDPHE) is deliberating over public feedback it received on February 19 and will soon submit a recommendation to the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee for final approval.

We showed broad support in the feedback for the “Medium” scenario with modifications as follows:

  • Boost the recycling rate for easy to recycle materials in the needs assessment from around 25% to 50% in the next ten years. This would double the amount of recyclable materials we’re able to reuse, significantly cutting the pollution and environmental impact from resource extraction for virgin materials.
  • Include glass recycling in the list of materials that can be collected curbside. Colorado already has infrastructure in place to process glass and turn it back into bottles here in our state. This can cut the amount of virgin materials we need to produce new glass bottles.
  • Expand investments in recycling facilities so we can sort, process and recycle more boxes, cans, bottles, and paper. Doubling our recycling rate will require that the CAA not only invest in curbside collection but also support the facilities that sort the additional materials we collect and get them to companies that will reuse them.
  • Do not include plastic materials on the recycling collection list that cannot be reused. To be recyclable, a material needs an end market – a company willing and able to buy it and use it to produce another bag, bottle or other form of packaging. Including non-recyclable plastics on the recyclable list will likely result in those materials heading to the landfill, which undermines trust in our recycling system. It will also make it harder for the state to disincentivize companies from using these hard to recycle plastics because the companies would pay the same fee as valuable, recyclable materials like glass, cardboard and aluminum.

We expect CDPHE will select the scenario to submit to the Joint Budget Committee in the next few weeks and the Joint Budget Committee will vote to approve it in mid-March.

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Authors

Henry Stiles

Advocate, Environment Colorado

Henry leads Environment Colorado's campaigns to reduce waste and protect wildlife and open spaces. He is a bird watcher and amateur wildlife photographer, which is what drew him in to doing environmental work.

Karli Eheart

Public Lands Campaign, Associate, Environment America

Karli works to preserve our public lands, from forests to the Arctic and anything in between. Karli lives in Denver, where she enjoys hiking, climbing, and taking her dog on adventures.

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