Down on the Dumps: Denver Is This Close to Phasing Out Dumpsters for Good

Charlotte Pitt manages Denver Recycles and Solid Waste Management.
Charlotte Pitt manages Denver Recycles and Solid Waste Management. Anthony Camera
By the end of 2017, the City of Denver will have completely phased out dumpsters in favor of cart-based trash service. Charlotte Pitt, manager of Denver Recycles and Solid Waste Management, understands that that’s a controversial statement.

“There was a lot of fear when we took dumpsters away,” Pitt says of the process that began four years ago. “We heard comments when we visited with neighborhood organizations and residents to talk about transitioning, and one of the big fears was that ‘Trash carts aren’t going to hold all my waste,’ or ‘I’m not going to remember my trash day,’ and ‘What about the elderly and disabled people?’ ‘Where am I going to put my cart?’” But when she circled back to the neighborhood groups after the change, Pitt found that their fears had been just that: fears.

In 2010, Denver drew up a plan to more effectively manage waste. Serious changes needed to be made: Solid Waste Management was collecting 220,000 tons of trash a year, or 440,000,000 pounds, and most of it was either compostable or recyclable. Another big problem was illegal dumping, much of which Pitt suspected came from contractors and small businesses.

So four years ago, the city started replacing dumpsters with individual carts that homeowners and apartment-dwellers roll out to the street for pick-up on designated days.

The theory behind the trash cart is simple: The smaller the end container, the more people will think about what they’re throwing away. And it seems to be working. Last year, the city collected 30,000 tons less trash than in 2010; since 2015, there has been a 140-pound reduction on average per household. What’s more, “What we’ve seen as we’ve rolled out the carts are more people are reporting illegal dumping when it happens now,” Pitt says. “Whereas someone may have in the past put extra waste besides a dumpster with the idea that we would see it [and pick it up], now if someone does dump, we get a call pretty quickly that it happens.”

It’s not a perfect system. Prowl Denver’s streets and alleys, and you’ll surely come across piles of trash — sofas, old TVs — mounded by the new carts. Those carts aren’t immediately feasible for every home and apartment building, either, especially in denser areas of the city. According to Pitt, some leasing companies and landlords are more cooperative than others and will make space for a few carts — though technically, every unit the city services is eligible for one. “Either the building will say, ‘Hey, we don’t need [individual] trash carts; we’ll share,’ [or] in other instances...we’ve seen individual units say, ‘No, I want my own trash cart, but I don’t generate that I’ll opt into the smallest-sized trash cart.’” (Residents should call 311 to change the size of their carts.)

But a fundamental issue with Denver’s waste-management program remains the way that residents are charged for trash pick-up. Unlike some cities that bill for the service directly and hit up big wasters for more, households here aren’t directly charged for trash services; the fee is incorporated into our taxes. “If you look at any city across the country that’s achieving high waste diversion — Seattle, San Francisco, Portland — all of them have some sort of pay-as-you-throw structure,” Pitt says. “It treats waste as a utility, where you pay for how much you use. That’s an industry best-management practice to achieve higher waste-diversion goals.”

What’s more, while half of the waste coming from Denver households is compostable material, the city currently only has the capacity to offer 14,000 of the 100,000 homes on composting routes pick-up service (about 11,000 homes have signed up). And it does charge for that service: $29.50 every three months.

Pitt knows that it doesn’t make sense to disincentivize something that is so desperately needed; that’s why the city is continuing to add composting routes — two in the last month alone. By the end of 2017, the city will have added four more composting routes, offering the service to a “good chunk of the rest of the city,” she notes. Pitt would eventually like for the service to be incorporated into the tax structure like regular waste pick-up, she says: “I hope we can realistically look at that in the next year or two.”

About 82 percent of the single-family homes in Denver participate in Denver’s recycling program, the cost of which is also incorporated into property taxes, and Pitt says she sees “huge opportunity for more recycling in multi-family dwellings.” Currently, the city only offers waste pick-up services to any dwelling with seven units or fewer.

In 2015, Denver City Council passed an ordinance to create a hauler-licensing system. Any commercial private company hauling waste out of the city now has to license with the city and provide data annually. As a result, the city will soon have a better sense of how much trash apartments larger than seven units produce. “We just captured the first of our annual data at the end of last year,” Pitt says, “and we’re in the process of looking at that and looking at what next steps will need to be taken.” For now, though, apartment-dwellers can take their recycling to the Cherry Creek recycling center.

This story is part of a series on spring cleaning, which will be rolling out all week ahead of Earth Day, Saturday, April 22. Don't miss the first part, a story about Clarke the recycling robot.
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Ana Campbell has been Westword's managing editor since 2016. She has worked at magazines and newspapers around the country, picking up a few awards along the way for her writing and editing. She grew up in south Texas.
Contact: Ana Campbell