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How we're protecting Colorado's natural beauty

Communities share successes and failures to increase the state's diversion rate in spite of the economic challenges

Kevin Afflerbaugh //July 27, 2017//

How we're protecting Colorado's natural beauty

Communities share successes and failures to increase the state's diversion rate in spite of the economic challenges

Kevin Afflerbaugh //July 27, 2017//

Colorado is known for its natural beauty, whether the mountains, valleys or wide-open spaces. This natural beauty has inspired residents and lawmakers alike to live and work in a way that often aims to protect these natural resources. However, this same natural landscape, which motivates us to get outside and inspires effort to protect it, creates challenges when it comes to diverting waste that we send to the landfill. 

On the eastern plains and Western Slope, the open spaces mean there is a lot of land available for burying trash in landfills. This, in turn, means Colorado’s landfill tipping fees (i.e. the cost to dump materials into the landfill) are often much lower when compared to landfills on the populous east and west coasts. The lower landfill tipping fees can create less of a financial incentive for recycling or composting our waste, which in turn can lead to lower diversion rates when compared to states with higher landfill tipping fees.

Another challenge impacting the state’s diversion rate is the Rocky Mountains.

While wonderful for skiing, camping and rock climbing, these landforms create transportation challenges for communities interested in recycling or composting. For many of our mountain and rural communities, facilities for separating recycling or composting food/yard waste may be hundreds of miles away. These challenges can create significant, additional costs for recycling and/or composting, which again negatively impact diversion levels.

Reflective of these challenges, Colorado’s overall diversion rate – 23 percent – is lower than the national average of 34 percent. Knowing these economic and geographic challenges exist and recognizing our overall low diversion rate, communities around the state have been active in trying to increase diversion through a number of different strategies.

These strategies include programs and policies that are adopted based on the several factors impacting each community including: political opportunities, population demographics and waste hauling infrastructure. 

These strategies have led to diversion rates that vary widely between individual communities.  On the Front Range alone, diversion rates in our cities vary from 11 percent to more than 60 percent for residential customers. This disparity shows that while there are real challenges to diversion, opportunities exist.

What are some of the strategies undertaken by communities to achieve higher diversion rates?  Let’s take a look at three communities and see what they have done to impact their diversion. 

City of Loveland

Loveland boasts the highest residential diversion rate in Colorado with a 61 percent diversion rate. Rather than a free market, the City of Loveland Solid Waste Management Division provides the weekly collection of refuse, recyclable materials and yard waste to more than 24,000 Loveland residences. The City collects recyclables and yard waste curbside, and also operates an extensive drop-off center for a number of non-traditional recyclables such as organics, tires, TVs, cooking oil, batteries, textiles, shoes, scrap metal and appliances.  

City of Boulder

Since the early 1990s, the City of Boulder has taken a variety of steps to improve their diversion, which now sits at 54 percent for residential customers. The City’s waste hauling market is a free market, with numerous haulers providing services, which has required Boulder to utilize a variety of tactics to impact the market. One effort is imposing a “trash tax” for all customers based on the level of trash service subscribed. This tax is used to fund; staff focused on implementing diversion programs, recycling efforts such as the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials and subsidized yard and wood waste drop off for city residents, and incentives to encourage recycling and composting. Additionally, the City has enacted ordinances to drive even more diversion. These ordinances have targeted both customers and the haulers. The most recent ordinance is the City’s Universal Zero Waste Ordinance that requires all properties, both residential and commercial, to subscribe to trash, recycling and compost services. For haulers, the City has enacted ordinances requiring haulers to provide both recycle and compost included within trash rates, in addition to utilizing a “pay-as-you-throw” rate structure for residential customers. Pay-as-you-throw rates incentivize diversion by basing pricing on volume of trash subscribed.   

City of Louisville

The City of Louisville has achieved a residential diversion rate of 48 percent for their customers.  The City has had a contracted franchise agreement for the past nine years with one hauler to provide curbside trash, recycle, and compost services for residential customers. This franchise methodology has allowed Louisville to ensure customers all have access to both recycling and compost while achieving consistent pricing based on the pay as you throw rate scale. 

Obviously, each community can only implement programs and/or policies within their resource capabilities and that meet the needs and desires of their constituents. Many cities struggling with waste diversion have begun to assess their efforts and develop goals and plans to improve their diversion. For example, Denver recently released their 2020 sustainability goal to get to 34 percent diversion. These plans and goals are a start that allows communities to develop the necessary programs to achieve their goals. Another option for communities interested in increasing diversion is to require haulers to report on their waste collection efforts. This is a starting place to help communities understand their waste streams and then allows them to better develop plans to address their needs.

To assist communities as they develop their options to increase diversion, the State of Colorado’s Department of Public Health and the Environment released the Integrated Solid Waste and Materials Management Plan in 2016. The goal of this plan was to evaluate the current state of waste disposal across Colorado and to develop potential diversion options and goals for the future. Hopefully, this report, coupled with the collaboration of communities sharing successes and failures, can help increase Colorado’s diversion rate in spite of the economic challenges impacting our communities.