The Hunt for Green

Sorting out the payday in Denver's new recycling plan.

After studying what other cities were doing, Pitt recognized that going to automated collection of big carts on wheels would save drivers and residents a lot of strain. It also cut the number of drivers needed, since each route could cover more blocks than the manual system allowed. And, of course, it encouraged residents to recycle more, since the confusing sorting process at their end was eliminated and the capacity was increased.

The key to the deal was finding a recycling plant willing to take the unsorted trash. Waste Management, which had already been doing some sorting of the city's trash, stepped forward with a commitment to retool its plant for single stream. Under a ten-year contract hammered out with the city, WM now pays Denver a minimum of $33 a ton for its recyclables. That's less than the figure on the old contract, but with overall volume going up, it actually translates into a larger payoff.

"We knew we would see a per-ton drop in price, because they have to do the sorting," Pitt says. "But we also knew our tonnage was going to go up."

High on fiber: Waste Management operations manager Jose Herrera (above) says the move to single stream quadrupled his workforce; Denver's recycling czar, Charlotte Pitt (right, flanked by city employees), found that automated trucks reduced injuries.
Anthony Camera
High on fiber: Waste Management operations manager Jose Herrera (above) says the move to single stream quadrupled his workforce; Denver's recycling czar, Charlotte Pitt (right, flanked by city employees), found that automated trucks reduced injuries.
The junk stops here: Trucks from across the Front Range unload at Denver's single-stream recycling plant (above); inside, workers sort through thirty tons of recyclables an hour.
Anthony Camera
The junk stops here: Trucks from across the Front Range unload at Denver's single-stream recycling plant (above); inside, workers sort through thirty tons of recyclables an hour.

With more than 66,000 carts on the streets -- and another 1,000 residents still waiting for carts -- participation in the new program is hovering around the same level as with the previous system. (The city doesn't collect from apartment houses with more than seven units, leaving about 160,000 residences in all eligible for the program.) But since 2004, the last full year of the purple tubs, Denver has seen close to a 40 percent rise in the amount of recyclables collected -- and a corresponding drop in materials headed for the landfill. Pitt expects the investment in carts and trucks to be offset by the operational savings and the rising revenue stream from selling more trash; she predicts the program will bring in $800,000 in revenue in the coming fiscal year.

Actually, she adds, the $33-a-ton figure is slightly misleading. Waste Management deducts 5 percent from the price of every ton for the inevitable contamination problems. It's not uncommon for unaccepted materials, mostly plastics, to find their way into the carts. Many consumers still don't understand that Denver's system takes plastic beverage bottles, but not plastic margarine tubs or paint buckets, and the 1-7 classification system stamped on plastic containers is little help in deciphering the rules.

"A plastic bottle and a plastic tub, while each may be labeled number one, are made with different processes," Pitt says. "One is blow-molded, the other is injection-molded. What you see are different melt temperatures and different chemicals. Bottles recycle easily, and there's a high market for them. Until we can take all the plastics, the issue is going to be there."

Cameras mounted on the city's recycling trucks allow the drivers to see what's in each cart as it's being emptied. So far, the level of abuse has run far below expectations; one analysis last year found the contamination rate averaging about 2 percent. Pitt attributes the low figure to a successful education program.

"We're not worried about people who put items in the cart because they thought they were recyclable," she says. "We're looking for people who are using the cart for garbage. Our goal is education first; if they continue, we take the cart away."

Plant manager Herrera estimates the total amount of contaminants coming into the plant at around 5 percent, but he figures a disproportionate amount of that comes from commercial customers dumping appliances, lumber, hardware, you name it. In a throwaway society, almost everything shows up at the recycling plant sooner or later.

Even throwaway people. Last November, sorters at the plant came across the most unsettling discovery of all: a corpse on the conveyor belt. Police were called immediately, and first impressions suggested that it might be a case of foul play and a body dump. But further inquiry indicated that Robert Henderson, 63, formerly of Arvada, was homeless and known to sleep in a dumpster used for recycling newspapers because it was warm.

The Denver Coroner's Office concluded that the death was accidental. "It is likely he was picked up by one of the trucks," the forensic pathologist wrote, "and suffered blunt force injuries during the pickup and transport to the recycling center."

When the second shift starts inside the plant, it's easy to see how the unfortunate Mr. Henderson made it to the pre-sort. Front-loaders attack the mountain of trash from two directions, nudging it toward a concrete bunker. At the far end of the bunker, a steeply pitched conveyor known as the incline hauls the indiscriminate mass of junk to a platform high off the ground. There a team of pre-sorters pulls items off the line that don't belong there, especially things that can get tangled in the machinery ahead: garden hoses, electrical cords, even shredded paper.

"I was surprised to see the amount of residential shredding going on," Herrera says. "Everyone's worried about identity theft."

One of the biggest problems at this stage, though, is something Waste Management has agreed to recycle: phone books. They can jam in the screens that separate one kind of material from another, so workers snatch them off the line in the pre-sort and send them down a chute to a collection bin below. The directories used to go to drop-off sites, but a staggering number now come mixed in with the rest of the single stream -- up to 500 tons of the fat tomes a month.

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