Denver is one of those cities that seems like it would be a dream for any eco-friendly person to live in. It’s full of like-minded people all working together to keep the environment clean and healthy … right? According to a recent study, that might not be the case.

Denver recycles only 18 percent of the waste that is generated, reports Recycling: A Missed Opportunity to Make Denver More Sustainable, a study done by Danny Katz from the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG) and Kate Bailey from Eco-Cycle. Curbside recycling is only available to single-family homes and apartments with less than seven units. This means most residents in larger apartment complexes don’t have any access to recycling bins. Also, that 18 percent statistic doesn’t factor in those larger multi-family communities, so the city’s recycling rates are probably even lower.

To put this into perspective, the recycling rate of Portland, Ore., in 2015 was 50.3 percent. Portland is similar in population and mentality about environmental concerns.

What’s Going Wrong

So why are the recycling rates in Denver so low? The majority of the blame should go to the city’s current policies, according to the authors of the study. In an annual city survey, the vast majority of people surveyed rated recycling as a high priority and said that “recycling is very important or essential.”

The current challenges include:

  • Denver residents who live in larger housing complexes don’t have access to recycling bins.
  • There is an additional charge of about $10 per month to have the green composting bins picked up. These are the bins that hold organic waste like leaves, food scraps and grass clippings. Currently, only 4 percent of single-family home residents have city compost bins.
  • Trash collection is provided to all single-family homes in Denver, but the recycling service is voluntary and only available upon request. As a result, many Denver residents haven’t taken the initiative to set up service, and, as a result, 23 percent of homes don’t have recycling bins.
  • Many Denver businesses don’t have a recycling program. In fact, according to CoPIRG, businesses produce as much as 60 percent of municipal waste.

In aforementioned Portland, recycling is available for larger multi-family communities. These communities include apartments, dormitories and condominiums — any location with five or more units on the property.

In fact, in Portland, not only is recycling available in the larger complexes, but the building’s owner or property manager is required to pay for and provide garbage and recycling services. They are also responsible for informing their tenants how to recycle and where the collection areas are located, and they are to offer a yearly reminder about those services.

How to Improve Recycling Rates

What can Denver (and any other city in its situation) do to improve recycling rates? Here’s what the study’s authors say:

  • Make sure everyone has the opportunity to recycle. Apartment residents, no matter the size of the property, should have the same services as those in single-family homes.
  • Make it more attractive to compost. Given that roughly half of the waste in residential trash bins is organic, the composting service should be free of charge.
  • Support businesses that recycle. Denver must put policies in place to make sure businesses have the tools and encouragement to participate in recycling.
  • Set a zero-waste goal. The city currently has set a goal to increase recycling rates to 34 percent, which is the national average, by 2020. This goal should be updated to achieve zero-waste by 2020 to ensure the city is reducing, reusing and recycling to its full potential.
  • Provide financial incentives to recycle. Residents who are wasting more should pay more, while those who recycle, compost and minimize their trash should be financially rewarded. Having a financial incentive is attractive to residents and businesses alike.

As Colorado’s largest city, Denver may be getting a bad rap, but the entire state is one of the most wasteful in the U.S. The national recycling rate average is almost 35 percent, while Colorado’s statewide average is only 12 percent.

However, Denver has the will to improve its current recycling statistics. As a result, the city has already begun distributing recycling bins to every single-family home. The goal is to get bins to all of them by 2018, a good step in the right direction.

By Wendy Gabriel

Wendy Gabriel is a freelance eco-writer based in California. Wendy's work has been featured in numerous publications and websites, including the Chicago Sun-Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Fox Business News and For nearly six years, she was a weekly contributor on a popular radio talk show in the Upper Midwest with a segment titled “Simple Tips for Green Living.”