Everyone knows how recycling works, right? When you toss a bottle into a bin, it goes to a plant and gets sorted into piles with similar refuse. Someone buys that trash, processes it, and creates reuse items. (Fleeces! Notebooks! Backpacks!) This is an example of a “closed-loop economy,” in which a product is used and then made into something new.

The truth, though, is that recycling isn’t always so straightforward. Sorting waste is pretty difficult, and finding takers for it is even harder. In years past, the United States shipped many of our recyclables to China for remanufacturing, but in 2018, that country effectively banned most of those materials due to excessive contamination (i.e., poor sorting and food residue). As a result, some materials are piling up in the Centennial State instead of being made into all that environmentally sound gear. Now, NextCycle—a new state-funded incubator supporting for-profit businesses that turn our trash into various kinds of treasure—is providing hope that Colorado can finally improve its recyclable economy.

Every Sunday, 27-year-old Natasha Ray does her part to save the Earth. In her Park Hill kitchen, she stuffs a hearty pinch of spinach, a spoonful of sautéed cremini mushrooms, and a dollop of whisked eggs into each segment of a muffin tin for a batch of bite-size breakfasts. Next, she preps arugula lunch salads. Then, on Mondays, she hauls Tupperware containers packed with five days’ worth of meals to her job at an education startup in downtown Denver. The goal: to follow the three R’s of trash disposal by reducing her food waste, reusing her containers, and recycling any plastics, papers, and metals appropriately. “You can control what you can do,” Ray says of her weekly ritual, “and it makes me feel good about myself.”

But Ray is the exception here: Coloradans produced 9.3 million tons of waste in 2018, according to a report by Boulder’s Eco-Cycle, a nonprofit recycler. Only 12 percent of this was recycled or composted; most of it went to landfills. That paltry proportion is significantly less than the national recycling and compost rate, known as the “waste diversion rate,” of 35 percent. Colorado’s rural communities struggle the most, with rates in the single digits to low teens, but Denver isn’t much better: The Mile High City recycles just 21.8 percent of its trash. (San Francisco and Seattle boast rates of 80 percent and 56.9 percent, respectively.)

There are plenty of reasons Coloradans don’t recycle more. Some may simply forget to use their recycling bins. Others may not have recycling pickup service because it carries an additional cost—or isn’t an option at all. Laws and policies that require or incentivize recycling are scant across Colorado.

Thankfully, the Centennial State is finally trying to change. In 2017, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) set a goal to drive our state’s waste diversion rate up to a more respectable 45 percent by 2036. The announcement was a move to make good on a state statute passed in 1991 that calls on Colorado to recycle more. The timing is critical because even if we get better at recycling, we’re still short on solutions to close the loop.

While Ray’s egg bites bake in the oven at her condo, she starts to sort trash. She removes the plastic wrap from the cremini container; it can’t be recycled in Denver. The clear, plastic arugula container, unlike the flimsy film, is recyclable. That goes into a paper grocery bag filled with rinsed cans and flattened cardboard boxes, which Ray will stuff into the building’s recycling dumpster.

Later that week, an eight-ton truck will empty the receptacle and deliver its contents to Alpine Waste and Recycling’s north Denver plant, the material recovery facility (MRF) where much of Denver’s recyclable material is sorted. Alpine doesn’t spin our old plastics into material for new synthetic base layers—or anything else, for that matter. The company sells bales of plastics, papers, and metals to other businesses that ultimately make them into products like sportswear, toys, or toothbrushes. To those remanufacturers, our waste is a commodity.

Alpine employees sort materials that can be processed into new items. Photo: Aaron Ontiveroz/the Denver Post via Getty Images.

Alpine pays trucking companies for valuable wares but will also charge haulers for the privilege of dropping less desirable recyclables off at their facilities. Right now, the latter category encompasses most materials in Colorado, save for glass, which has a robust secondary market on the Front Range thanks to Coors. “It’s all tied to what the commodity values are in any given month,” says Brent Hildebrand, Alpine’s vice president of recycling. “Right now, most of the commodities are just not doing well.”

Until last year, at least half of the United States’ recyclables—tin cans, paper grocery bags, and maybe even Ray’s discarded arugula box—were sold and shipped to China. In best-case scenarios, remanufacturers there would create second-life products; in worst case-scenarios, our recyclables would instead be dumped into Chinese landfills.

In 2018, however, China instituted an effective ban on the world’s recyclable material. The country told the World Trade Organization that processing our poorly sorted waste was too damaging to its own environment. China now requires a virtually unachievable contamination rate of 0.5 percent on imported recyclables (about 10 percent is considered excellent for American MRFs). As a result, Colorado’s hopes for a closed-loop economy were broken wide open. Laurie Johnson, executive director of Recycle Colorado, says MRFs across the country have struggled to find takers for our waste ever since. “A lot of it,” she says, “is just piling up.”

Fortunately, the CDPHE has a plan to salvage the state’s recycling industry: If China won’t buy our waste, the department wants to support domestic companies that will. Consider the plastic wrap Ray tosses each Sunday: It could be recycled by Vermont-based remanufacturer EcoGlobal, which melts thin plastics into usable putty to make items like durable mats (often used on construction sites). Caleb Rick, EcoGlobal’s CEO, says the company hopes to open a Colorado facility by 2022.

The company could potentially benefit from the help of NextCycle, a program launched by CDPHE in 2018 to boost Colorado’s remanufacturing industry. In February, NextCycle announced its inaugural class of nine businesses, which include aspiring dead-tree processors and solar panel salvagers. If Coloradans can get better at recycling, these new companies might be able to handle the additional waste CDPHE ultimately hopes to divert from landfills.

NextCycle, which has $185,000 in funding for its first year, will help these young companies fine-tune business plans and navigate Colorado’s waste and recycling systems. It will also groom them to compete for state grants designed to catalyze our remanufacturing industry. “There’s plenty of opportunity to develop those [closed-loop markets] domestically,” says CDPHE recycling grants administrator Eric Heyboer, who helped spearhead NextCycle.

It’s worth noting that many of those recyclable materials do not come from our homes, so NextCycle also takes aim at improving commercial recycling. One member of the program’s inaugural class, 9Fiber, plans to set up shop in Pueblo to capture some of the estimated 111 million pounds of organic waste produced by Colorado’s hemp and cannabis industries. The company developed a chemical process that converts discarded stems into raw fiber, which can be spun into just about anything, from posh loungewear to drywall for Denver’s more than 500 new-home construction developments.

And while a diverse cast of entrepreneurs is taking aim at Colorado’s burgeoning remanufacturing market—and heaping piles of waste—they’ve all got at least one thing in common: They’re in this to make money. “We’ve not recognized the value of tapping into the entrepreneurial spirit,” Heyboer says. “Now we’re harnessing that energy.”

This article was originally published in 5280 June 2019.
Haley Gray
Haley Gray
Haley Gray is a Boulder-based freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in 5280, Roads and Kingdoms, Boulder Magazine, and the Albuquerque Journal.