Bex Schmelzel is looking forward to the day that Recycle Island will no longer take over the tiny kitchen in their Capitol Hill apartment.
Schmelzel’s apartment building does not provide recycling. Recycle Island is what Schmelzel and their partner call the pile of recyclables they store until a friend — who works at a recycling center in Boulder — can pick up the recyclables and drop them off.
“It’s such a relief when we can get rid of it,” Schmelzel said.
They added that when there are months that go by before the friend is able to help with their recyclables, Recycle Island has, at times, reached about two-by-two feet or more.
“I don’t like the idea of being wasteful,” Schmelzel said. “I literally feel bad in my heart for being wasteful.”
But until Schmelzel’s apartment complex starts offering recycling, there’s little that they can do except let Recycle Island pile up. Schmelzel works at a school and is attending graduate school at the University of Denver so they are not able to afford other sustainable options such as refill shops.
Thankfully for Schmelzel, Ballot Measure 306, known as Waste No More, passed in November with nearly a 71% yes vote. This law requires all buildings in Denver, like Schmelzel’s apartment building, to provide access to recycling.
Schmelzel hopes the Waste No More initiative will reframe how people think about recycling.
“It’s a good measure,” they said. “We want to be able to recycle.”
Still, it could be a number of months before Denver residents see any changes.
Denver is on the path to `Waste No More’
Ean Tafoya, a candidate for mayor who served as co-director of the Waste No More campaign, and his colleagues worked on the measure for two years. In 2016, Tafoya was petitioning for the Denver Green Roof Initiative — which voters passed in 2017 and is now known as the Green Buildings Ordinance — when he discovered that Denver residents actually had a greater interest in access to recycling.
So, he and a team went to work to start writing the Waste No More initiative in 2020 and collected more than 11,000 signatures to get Waste No More on the ballot. They missed the deadline for the 2021 election, but knowing Denver residents cared about access to recycling, Tafoya and his team continued their work to ensure it was on the November 2022 ballot.
“There has been a delay in (the) climate action that science is asking for, and my generation is crying for,” Tafoya said. “It is clear from the vote of the Denver public, this is what we want.”
He added that Waste No More has the potential to make a significant impact on the local environment.
According to the most recent numbers available, Denver is sending about 75% of its waste to landfill. These numbers, which are from 2021, demonstrate that Denver’s diversion rate — the amount of material that is not sent to landfill — is at 25.7%. For comparison, the Boulder County Sustainability website reports its diversion rate is 35%, and the 2021 Fort Collins Waste Reduction & Recycling Report states its diversion rate was 55.5% for that year.
The city of Denver is making strides to improve its diversion rate and Waste No More will play a big role.
Once implemented, every building in Denver will be required to provide three waste bins: landfill, recycling and compost. This includes restaurants, businesses, offices, stadiums and multi-family housing with more than four units. With greater access to recycling and composting, the people of Denver will have the opportunity to appropriately sort their trash.
Another important component of the policy requires construction and demolition sites to adopt more sustainable practices.
“Demolition waste accounts for half of our climate emissions and materials like metal, corrugate, glass, concrete and asphalt can be diverted from the landfill,” Tafoya said, adding that the Waste No More law will ensure these materials are properly recycled.
Timeline is different than other ballot measures
Waste No More will be enforced by the city of Denver with the Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency taking the lead. But there is a lot of uncertainty about how the new law will work and it could be awhile before it is enforced.
Since Waste No More was a citizen-led initiative, the timeline for enforcement looks a little different than other ballot measures written by city council. One cause for delay can be attributed to the language the initiative used because it is not what the city would use.
Grace Rink, Denver’s chief climate officer, used a traffic violation as an example. When a person gets a traffic ticket, there are specific guidelines for how to appeal that ticket. With Waste No More, how it will be enforced is not written into the language, Rink said. Additionally, Rink added, the way it is currently written implies that an apartment building can be fined for not complying, but it does not define what the fine is or what an appeal looks like.
Therefore, Rink said, the bill must be revised, but the language on the original ballot cannot be changed for at least six months after the election.
There are a few steps the city is doing in the meantime to get things rolling. First, a task force must be created. This group of 25 individuals will consist of stakeholders from entities that are regulated by the ordinance. These include recycling centers, trash haulers, special events companies, restaurant owners, organics processors and building owners. Waste No More ballot sponsors will hold two seats, according to Tafoya. Rink said the task force will hold regular meetings for six months, beginning in March and the public may attend and observe. The goal of this task force is not to rewrite the ordinance, but to make recommendations for adjustments to state concise rules and enforcement guidelines. These regulation revisions must first be approved by city staff and then presented to city council.
Ordinances working in tandem
In addition to Waste No More, other environmentally-focused proposals were recently adopted in Denver. These include the “pay as you throw” trash pickup, which charges for landfill waste bins while recycling and compost are free; the Bring Your Own Bag program, which encourages reusable bag use by charging for disposable bags; and the Single-Use Accessory Restriction Ordinance which requires all retail food establishments to only provide single-use condiments and plasticware upon customer request.
A statewide Producer Responsibility Ordinance (PRO) was also signed last summer. The PRO will provide free and equitable recycling to all Coloradoans as well as encourage more sustainable practices from Colorado manufacturers.
All of these ordinances will work in tandem to accelerate Denver’s goal. “CASR, in partnership with Denver’s Department of Transportation & Infrastructure and the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment, recommends to divert 50% of all solid waste generated by 2027 and 70% by 2032,” according to devergov.org.
With regard to Waste No More specifically, some businesses have already adopted the three waste stream practices.
Vital Root, a restaurant located at 3915 Tennyson St. in Denver’s Berkeley neighborhood, has been offering three waste streams for years. The restaurant has incorporated the use of compostable supplies, including takeaway containers.
One of the managers, Kathryn Begley, said it’s important to the company and the restaurant’s guests to be environmentally conscious.
“It is a big mission statement to us,” said Begley.
But the city needs to provide better education on how to sort waste material, Begley added.
Customers are receptive to the recycling and compost program at Vital Root, but Begley has noticed there are issues with people knowing what is compostable and what is not.
“Lots of people will send their whole trays to the trash, even though we have made an effort to provide recycle and compostable bins,” Begley said. “The general public needs better education.”
Vital Root isn’t the only business struggling with material sorted by the public becoming contaminated.
A1 Organics processes all the composting in Denver and has reported seeing glass mixed in with composted materials, Rink said. Unfortunately, this contaminates the material that can be composted so all of it has to be taken to the landfill. To combat this, A1 has restricted the material it will accept to just the basics: food scraps and yard waste only.
The city is preparing to improve the education program to help residents learn how to properly dispose of their trash. Clear messaging in multiple languages, as well as the use of symbols, are part of these improvements.
“Right now, everywhere you go the recycling signs are different,” Rink said. “It only adds to the confusion.”
Rink’s goal is to provide the same information citywide. Whether it’s at school, a restaurant or at home, the same trash/recycling/compost signage will be posted throughout Denver.
“Education is key,” Rink said. “It’s one thing to offer the three waste streams, but if we are not using it right, it defeats the purpose.”