By Jessica Gibbs
Advocates of “pay as you throw” programs have waited at least a decade for Denver to adopt trash pickup fees to push residents toward wasting less, and recycling more. On Monday a split Denver City Council approved a proposal to implement such a policy by January 2023.
The program will charge a fee for trash pickup, eliminate a composting fee, and provide the residential customers in single family homes or small apartment complexes with composting and more frequent recycling.
The bill to implement a volume-based trash fee service consumed approximately four hours of the council’s Monday meeting. More than two dozen people gave public comment, mostly in favor, dressing in green clothes to show their support.
City personnel who presented the proposal stressed Denver’s residential waste diversion rate is 26%, well below the national average of 34%. City staff told council that Denver “needs to drive behavior change,” while one public speaker said Denver’s recycling and composting rates are “embarrassingly low.”
Supporters said educating people about composting and recycling is helpful but that education alone won’t move the needle. Numerous people said the proposal was not perfect but that they believed incentivizing people to recycle and compost will decrease how much Denver piles into landfills. Roughly 20 people spoke in favor of the bill as a means to combat climate change.
Several public speakers opposed the bill, and two councilmembers said they had received nearly unanimous opposition among constituents who contacted their office regarding it. Residents against the proposal said trash pickup should remain free and the fees would disproportionately affect aging or at-risk residents.
Councilmembers who threw their support behind the bill said similar programs in other communities have proven effective at reducing waste. The fees are among the city’s lowest, and the adjoining affordability program will be accessible to residents of a higher income than other Denver rebate programs. Most imperative to them, they said, was addressing the climate crisis.
Councilmembers who voted against the bill said the city had not done enough to educate residents about recycling and composting. They questioned whether a fee would actually push people to reduce waste and would pose an unfair burden to at-risk residents, or simply fail to make a significant dent in Denver’s carbon footprint.
Denver provides trash pickup to 180,000 households. Trash services have been paid for through the general fund, which means everybody in the city contributing to revenues such as sales tax or property tax is funding trash pickup. (Although, Denver’s trash pickup service is only provided to single-family homes and small apartment complexes no larger than seven units.)
Representatives of the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure led the proposal in partnership with the city’s Climate Action Office and Department of Human Services. In addition to incentivizing reducing waste, an affordability program will provide discounts on trash bills for low-income households.
Depending on a household’s income and number of residents, qualified customers could pay 50% to 75% of the fee, or no fee at all.
The city will spend $3.8 million annually on educating the public about the volume-based program, as well as how to compost and recycle correctly.
Climate office executive director Grace Rink said Denver needs this change.
”We’re charging people for something that we want them to do, which is composting, and we’re not charging them for something we don’t want them to do, which is trash. So we’re flipping the script,” Rink said.
The ordinance eliminates the city’s $9.75 fee for composting and provides it to all customers. It provides weekly recycling at no additional charge. Recycling pickups are currently biweekly. There would be a fee for trash service, but people can choose from one of three trash bin sizes.
The monthly fees would stagger from $9 for a 35-gallon bin, to $13 for a 65-gallon bin and $21 for a 95-gallon bin.
Rink said the plan is important because it doesn’t just incentivize less waste, but provides customers the tools to compost and recycle.
“It’s the full package together,” Rink said.
Rink said she does not want to ignore concerns among critics about the fees coming amid high inflation and the rising cost of living in Denver.
“Those concerns are real,” she said.
The affordability program aims to address the cost burden. Rink said it is not a rebate but a discount immediately applied to a customer’s bill. The discount program will help families “that are truly hurting financially.”
“The climate crisis is now. It is not going away. We do hope and believe that inflation is temporary,” Rink said.
Rink said “this is one small part of the city’s total waste generation” but that every bit counts toward addressing the climate crisis.
Councilmember Kevin Flynn staunchly opposed the bill. He’s said he’s known how he feels about pay-as-you-throw programs for years and called adopting the law this year “a recipe for disaster.” Inflation is at 8.5%, gas is exceeding $5 a gallon, and Xcel plans to implement time-of-day pricing, he said.
“We’re just slamming people,” he said.
The councilmember introduced an unsuccessful amendment to delay the bill’s implementation until October 2023, knowing it was unlikely to be approved, he said.
Flynn said aside from one constituent who has worked on the proposal, “100% of the public calls and emails” he received on the bill came from people who opposed it. The bill’s critics told him they are already composting at home and don’t need the city service, or were sufficiently recycling with pickup every two weeks.
“We should first make composting free, absorb that in the general fund, and then do a massive outreach campaign,” he said.
Flynn said 18% of the city’s recyclables end up at a landfill anyway because they were not properly recycled. Think a pizza box with the greasy cardboard bottom still attached. That gets diverted to the landfill because it cannot be recycled, he said.
Flynn supports providing people with larger or two recycling containers instead of implementing weekly recycling pickups. The added routes and trucks will only worsen the city’s carbon footprint, he said.
“I think most people agree that we should not be sending things to the landfill that don’t need to go to the landfill,” he said.