Despite concerns, Denver’s ‘pay as you throw’ program is on track to start in January

In November, the auditor’s office released a report saying the city isn’t on track to successfully implement the new program. City Council just passed a contract with a private company to help raise capacity.
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A full recycling bin in Denver’s Country Club neighborhood. Feb. 15, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Despite staffing concerns and calls for delays, Denver's "pay as you throw" trash pickup is set to start on time in January. On Monday, City Council passed a contract with a private company to help address capacity problems.

The "pay as you throw" program aims to divert waste from landfills and promote sustainability. Denver residents will begin to pay fees for trash pickup based on the size of their bins. They will no longer pay a composting fee and will have recycling picked up weekly, as opposed to every other week. A split City Council approved the proposal in June after years of advocacy from environmental groups.

But it's been unclear whether Denver has the resources to successfully implement the changes.

In November, the city auditor's office released a report pointing to aging trucks, costly repairs and high staff vacancy rates as issues that could lead to more missed pickups when the new program starts. Plus, the city is telling people who want to switch to smaller cans to expect delays.

"Denver is already struggling to keep up with trash service for residents," Auditor O'Brien said in a press release about the report. "Given the city's strained resources, the expansion of recycling and compost service next year will be a significant burden that might not come with the hoped-for environmental benefits."

The office found that almost half the city's trucks have only two years left of useful life, and the department had a 21 percent vacancy rate for drivers in June of 2022. O'Brien also expressed concerns about pricing - between $9 to $21 per month for trash -and whether rates are enough to keep the program self-sustaining.

Now, Denver's looking beyond city resources to start ramping up recycling pickup on time.

The city passed a $13.5 million contract with Little Dumpsters, a local company, to provide recycling pickup services for around 28,000 households per week, as the city switches from pickup every other week to weekly.

Councilman Kevin Flynn, who has called for the delay of the program, questioned whether the contract is expansive enough to address the auditor's issues. He said that many council members regularly get complaints about trash collection already.

But the program's manager, Jessica Lally, said the city is about 98% staffed and that the additional contract will make the rollout successful.

Flynn also expressed concerns about pay, with Little Dumpsters topping out at around $36 an hour, while the city's top range is $32 per hour. City officials said differences often occur with private contractors. They also pointed to city benefits and a $5,000 signing bonus for city workers.

The contract will begin in 2023 and run for three years as Denver adjusts to the new trash and recycling program.

Once "pay as you throw" starts in January, people in single family homes and apartments with up to 7 units will pay $9 per month for a small trash cart, $13 per month for a medium cart and $21 per month for a large cart, while composting and recycling will be free. Residents will get invoices in early 2023 and can get rebates for low-income residents. People can change their trash cart size online or by calling 311.

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