Why It May Be Years Before Denver Trash Goes Pay-as-You-Throw

Why It May Be Years Before Denver Trash Goes Pay-as-You-Throw
In advance of the Denver election tomorrow, Tuesday, May 7, Mayor Michael Hancock and mayor's race competitors Lisa Calderón, Jamie Giellis, Penfield Tate and Kalyn Heffernan differ on plenty of major issues. But they're all in agreement that Denver should switch to a pay-as-you-throw trash collection system, an approach that is seen as the best way for the city to improve its terrible recycling rate.

But that doesn't mean the change will take place soon, no matter who's elected.

It's been nine years since the city first floated the pay-as-you-throw idea, in which residents would be charged for the amount of trash collected, and the strategy was in discussion even earlier. Hancock seemed open to the notion early in his mayoral tenure; he was initially elected in 2011. However, he didn't formally task Denver Solid Waste Management, a division of the Public Works department, with launching a feasibility analysis into the concept until 2017 — a delay for which Calderón, Giellis and Tate all criticize him. In Tate's words, "This is something he should have been in front of eight years ago, and he wasn't."

Indeed, the aforementioned study is still ongoing, and Charlotte Pitt, interim director for Denver Solid Waste Management, says it's extremely unlikely the program could be implemented by next year, when the city had hoped to raise its recycling rate, currently at a measly 22 percent, to the 34 percent national average.

"To be honest with you, I don't think we could physically, logistically get it rolled out and actually start sending out bills by 2020," Pitt says. "If that's the direction our policymakers choose, there are a lot of things that have to happen before a first bill is ever sent."

Right now, Denver residents don't receive such invoices for trash pickup, but they're still being charged for the service whether they know it or not. "None of it's free," Tate stresses. "Instead, it's embedded in the cost of government services that you pay for in your taxes" — sales tax and property tax, to be specific. "It's just that there isn't a separate fee."

On top of that, the tax structure means people who discard more aren't hit with steeper charges and those who toss less receive no benefit for their comparative environmentalism.

There's no individual fee for recycling in Denver, either. But locals who want to take part in the city's composting program must pay $29.25 per quarter, or just shy of $120 annually, for a green cart in which to chuck organic material that's collected weekly — something Tate particularly dislikes. In his words, "We've got it backwards. We charge for composting, which we want to encourage and which ought to be free."

Pitt believes Denver is one of only three major U.S. cities that use taxes to pay for trash collection; San Diego and Washington, D.C., are the other two with which she's familiar. And while she acknowledges that some smaller communities employ a similar procedure, most require folks to pay for how much they discard.

For instance, Boulder and Broomfield contract with Western Disposal, which sells trash service based on 32-gallon containers with carts, with escalating fees based on whether a person uses the 32-, 64- or 96-gallon size. Boulder also assesses what it describes as a "trash tax" based on the service level residents select, but unlimited recycling and composting are included in the overall fee; Broomfield charges more for the former and doesn't currently offer composting. Aurora, for its part, licenses private companies to provide residential trash and recycling service and relies on the firms to set costs. In contrast, Littleton states on its website that it doesn't "endorse or recommend any trash or recycling services," leaving property owners to make up their own mind — but the city suggests that neighbors "talk to each other about trash and recycling services and attempt to coordinate service for their street, block or neighborhood."

click to enlarge This graphic shows the different sizes of trash cans typically used in Denver. - DENVERGOV.ORG
This graphic shows the different sizes of trash cans typically used in Denver.
To explain why such plans tend to be more environmentally friendly than the one Denver's using now, Pitt offers an example: "Think about electricity. If you don't want a big Xcel bill, you turn down your thermostat in the winter and turn it up in the summer. And it's the same with trash. If you don't want to pay as much for it, you use less trash and do more recycling and composting."

This theory isn't new. It's in the executive summary of the October 2010 Denver Public Works master plan for managing solid waste, which urges officials to consider "variable rate collection pricing (or pay-as-you-throw)" because it increases waste diversion, sets equitable fees for all residents and offers individual control over the fees charged. And Pitt acknowledges that the topic predates the document. "I've been here for twenty years, and it comes up quite frequently," she maintains. "And then it kind of falls off the table."

Hancock grabbed onto it again in 2017. "The mayor wanted us to look at what other communities are doing and how they're achieving a high waste diversion rate for recycling and composting — and pay-as-you-throw seems to have the best impact," Pitt says.

Calderón thinks Hancock should have issued this directive long before he did and argues that the reasons he's bringing it up now aren't exactly altruistic. "This feels like political grandstanding for the purposes of gaining votes from the environmental community," she says. "It's following a pattern from the mayor of putting out a flurry of initiatives during the election year. And in this case, he's trying to appeal to environmentalists who've supported him in the past but may be concerned about his lack of progress or prioritization for, in this particular case, recycling and composting."

To enhance the latter, Calderón is calling for supplementing pay-as-you-throw with "offsets for recycling and composting. In other words, you get credit when you recycle and compost. Right now, you have to pay for composting, so this is flipping our system. And we need to take into account low-income and fixed-income people. If we reward them or anybody for recycling more and composting more, then they would get a credit as opposed to just having a fee, and that could offset it."

Like Calderón, Giellis feels that "the current administration has been slow to move the needle" on pay-as-you-throw, but she stops short of hammering Hancock for not having already implemented it. Communicating via email, she writes, "The Mayor has said that the collections systems just weren't ready, and that may well be the case. I need better information before I can comment." But if elected, she stresses, "I will absolutely not create any fee system for trash without a plan and without taking the issues to the voters. We need to be sure we understand the impact of moving to paid trash on all of our residents — our most economically challenged, our elderly. We also need to be sure that we don't see recycling bins filled up with trash as a way to get around fees or have issues with trash dumping in other ways."

At the same time, though, Giellis argues for eliminating composting charges and mandating that apartment buildings and commercial establishments, which aren't currently part of the city collection system, be required to recycle and compost.

Tate, meanwhile, underscores the need for a transition period in regard to pay-as-you-throw "that's responsible to the needs of the lower-income communities. We don't want to send a price signal to people who are struggling or who are at a different economic level that they can't participate in trash disposal because it costs too much. We also need a massive public-relations and education campaign — and we need to realize that it's going to take some time for it to catch on. Environmental experts will tell you that 80 percent of what we dispose of is compostable or recyclable, but most people don't know it."

Heffernan, corresponding via email, sums up her policy on pay-as-you-throw in a single line: "I’m into the idea of paying for trash as long as recycling and composting is free and accessible to the city." Stephan "Chairman Seku" Evans, the sixth candidate on the Denver mayoral ballot, hasn't responded to Westword's inquiry on the subject at this writing.

Pitt, too, mentions the need to educate the Denver public in advance of pay-as-you-throw and during the implementation phase to insure its effectiveness. But that's only the beginning of the challenges involved in making it a reality aside from whether commercial buildings and large apartment complexes should be folded into the plan, and if so, how and when.

According to Pitt, "We're looking at what this would take operationally. We have a fee-based, citywide composting program, but only 10 percent of our residents have signed up to use it. We know that if we turned on a utility-style program, we'd have a lot more people sign up. How many trucks would we need to manage that? What would it take? How would we bill people? What sort of billing systems are there? We're looking internally at all the operational changes we'd have to make and the resources we'd need to go down this road."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts