MARLON REIS: Recycling is a local-market opportunity to affect global change

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Plastic materials sorted from a residential recycling stream at a material recovery facility.. Recycling systems are facing challenges in many places, but some experts say it’s still growing. And they say dual-stream recycling _ in which you separate recyclables before they’re collected _ is hitting its stride. (Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries via AP)

Here in Colorado, we are fortunate to enjoy beautiful public lands that attract tourists from around the world. This year, alongside many of our western neighbors, Coloradans had front-row seats to the devastating reality of climate change as our state struggled through extreme drought and record-setting wildfires that forced thousands of Coloradans to flee their homes, often with less than ten minutes to prepare. These tragic events prove that climate refugees are not from hurricane-ravaged coastal communities alone. They are our neighbors and friends, right here in the West.

In the face of global-scale natural disasters, it is tempting to believe things are too far gone to change course. But, thankfully, in addition to the important work our state is doing to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2040, each of us can help protect the Colorado we know and love by committing to recycling. This week, November 16th through the 20th, we are celebrating Colorado Recycles Week, to raise awareness about the importance of recycling and composting, and how Coloradans can contribute personally to creating a healthier planet.

In 2019, Colorado’s recycling and composting efforts stopped more than 1.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions from entering our atmosphere. For perspective, that’s the equivalent of removing 400,000 cars from our roads. If Colorado recycled and composted just 10% more, we could cut down carbon emissions by a further 160,000 metric tons per year; the equivalent of taking 34,000 more cars off the road. While these efforts are clearly a huge win for Colorado’s environment, our state currently recycles and composts less than 16% of our municipal waste every year. We lag far behind the national average of 35% and are falling short of our state goal of 28% by 2021.

But I believe 2021 is our year to turn things around.

Reducing carbon emissions continues to be a priority of the Polis Administration, and recycling plays an important role in that effort. Thanks to the excellent work of Senators Kevin Priola and Tammy Story, and Representatives Lisa Cutter and Jeni Arndt, I was one of the many Coloradans celebrating this past July, as Governor Polis signed SB20-055, a bipartisan bill aimed at bringing new businesses to Colorado to use our recycled materials to make new products, and requiring the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) to launch a public education campaign to teach Coloradans how to become better recyclers.

Last year, CDPHE also launched the Front Range Waste Diversion Grant Program, which, in its first grant cycle this Fall, awarded over $2M to develop and expand recycling and composting programs across the Front Range.

Recycling is key to protecting our planet, but it also creates nine times more jobs than landfills, making it an important tool for building more resilient local economies.

If you’ve seen the 1989 film, Field of Dreams, you likely remember these words: “If you build it, they will come.” The more accessible we make recycling, the more Coloradans will recycle. And the more Coloradans recycle, the more we will attract businesses that buy and sell our recycled material.

The climate catastrophes we are experiencing are not anomalies, and they won’t be resolved through inaction. We all have a responsibility to future generations to preserve Colorado’s beautiful public lands and the animals with whom we share them. Beyond the work our state is doing to reduce pollution and protect our environment, as individuals, it’s time to reject the single-use mindset and embrace reusing, recycling, and composting with conviction.

Recycling and composting are two, simple things that each of us can do to positively impact the communities where we live, and the world beyond.

Marlon Reis is first gentleman of Colorado.