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As you are cleaning up the detritus of your holiday celebrations, there’s an important stat you should keep in mind: Every ton of materials that gets recycled, instead of sent to the landfill, saves almost three tons of climate change–causing emissions.
Each year, Coloradans bury more than 5.9 million tons in landfills—and that spikes around the holiday season, when waste increases more than 23 percent. Cardboard boxes, wrapping paper, gift boxes, and other packaging all lead to the boost, but so does an uptick in food waste. That’s especially concerning when you consider the state is already lagging on recycling, with just 15 percent of waste recycled or composted (less than half the national average), according to the latest State of Recycling and Composting in Colorado report from Eco-Cycle, a nonprofit recycler, and the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG).
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“For five years, we have had a pretty stagnant and abysmal recycling rate. We need to do something big if we’re going to expect a difference,” says Danny Katz, executive director of CoPIRG. “And we should do something big, because a 15 percent recycling rate means we are causing unnecessary pollution, unnecessary waste, and unnecessary costs to businesses.”
Here are some actionable steps you can take during the holidays to address the mess and make sure you aren’t part of the problem.
Know what you can and can’t recycle
There’s often some confusion about what’s recyclable. For the most confounding category, plastics, Kate Bailey, policy and research director for Eco-Cycle, suggests a basic guideline: sort by shape. Generally, bottles, tubs, jugs, and jars are recyclable. These are often labeled with a number (one through seven, which indicates what type of plastic it is), and are accepted rinsed and with lids on. Some plastics, like single-use bags and Styrofoam, don’t recycle. K-cups from coffee makers, plastic utensils, any plastic container marked as compostable, and plastic wrap are also no-gos. If you are unsure about something, be sure to check Denver’s comprehensive guide of what is acceptable.
Consider a product’s end at the beginning
This time of year, with the flurry of buying, wrapping, and clean-up, it’s easy to do one massive sweep from the grocery store to the garbage can. But a few small switches can make a big difference. Wrapping with fabric or reused materials, like decorated paper bags, newspapers, magazines, old maps, or calendars, spares wrapping paper, which often isn’t recyclable or doesn’t recycle effectively. Instead of plastic bows and ribbons, the city of Denver suggests searching out natural flourishes like leaf sprigs or pine cones.
Use special drop-offs for holiday decorations
Busted string lights can go to the Cherry Creek Recycling drop-off center through January 8. And from January 3 to 14, Denver’s curbside collection will pick up decoration-free trees on your scheduled trash day. Last year, the program shredded 20,2850 trees into mulch for spring gardens. This kind of effort to “treecycle” can make a real difference as a year-round approach to diverting waste from landfills. Loveland leads the state for municipal recycling rates, and Tyler Bandemer, Loveland’s public works solid waste superintendent, says that’s largely thanks to the city’s efforts to collect grass, leaves, and other green waste that becomes mulch.
Make sure you have access to recycling
Cities that achieve the state’s highest recycling rates automatically issue recycling bins with new residential garbage service. Any time recycling is an opt-in service subscribers pay for, there’s a decline in recycling rates, according to Bailey. In Denver, multi-family housing residents don’t even have that choice; the property manager has to decide to pay for recycling services—and only a small fraction do. The best advice in this scenario is to campaign your property manager to add the service, or try to coordinate other building residents to contract a private service.
Do the dishes, and don’t forget the leftovers
It’s easy to have dinner party trappings that you can just throw away. But reusable plates and flatware, properly stored leftovers, and dropping off food scraps and paper napkins with Denver Compost (the curbside collection program costs about $120 a year and about 30,000 Denverites have joined) can all pare back on the impact of waste. In landfills, organic matter like food waste emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas, while decomposing.
Give a gift that needs no wrapping
Eco-Cycle’s advice on curbing your holiday waste includes making sure batteries, electronics, and white foam packaging get recycled. But that requires a trip to a recycling facility. Skip that effort—and the packaging completely—by gifting an experience, like event tickets, classes, or memberships. “We have this unfortunate system right now where the more you buy, the more pollution you’re creating,” Katz says. “That’s why we need to rethink our system, so that we can be giving people gifts and demonstrating our appreciation and love for them without always having to wrap it in plastic.”
(Read more: Can Big Ideas Improve Colorado’s Recycling Reputation?)