Thu. Sep 28th, 2023


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Denver’s rollout of free compost collections will stretch into 2024

6 min read

In the first six months of its pay-as-you-throw trash program, Denver saw a 3% uptick in the amount of waste being diverted away from its landfill. But the biggest change to how Denver handles refuse — free citywide compost service that could redirect everything from banana peels to tree limbs to a composting facility — is only now ready to start rolling out to residents.

City officials have high hopes for what the service changes will mean for landfill diversion rates and greenhouse gas emissions in the long term, but most Denverites should sit tight with the size trash bins they have now, those same officials caution. Standing up the free composting program is going to be a slow, steady process that moves zone by zone through the city’s solid waste management collection districts. At least half of solid waste customers who don’t already compost won’t get their bins until 2024.

“We have about half of the compost carts in now that we’ll need and we’ll get the other half next year,” Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure spokeswoman Vanessa Lacayo said Thursday while standing in a city warehouse loaded with stacks of the green bins that will soon accompany black trash carts and purple recycling carts on curbs in north central Denver.

People living in the city’s solid waste collection District 2, an area that includes the City Park, City Park West, Clayton, Cole, Elyria-Swansea, Five Points, North Capitol Hill, Skyland, Whittier neighborhoods and parts of Globeville, should have received notices from the city last week about the impending arrival of their green bins. Those will start arriving the week of July 31, according to the city. So far only 200 or so of those estimated 11,400 customers have opted out of composting, Lacayo said.

From there, the solid waste management division will move on to District 4 in the far northeast corner of the city. Everything beyond that is to be determined.

“It’s about getting people to grow with the program so I don’t have a schedule just yet,” Lacayo said. “As we’ve said from the beginning, until you have your (compost) cart we recommend waiting” to request a new trash bin.

There is a financial incentive to downsize trash bins. The city charges $21 per month for the largest 95-gallon carts while a medium-sized 65-gallon cart costs $13 per month. That’s a difference of $96 per year. The smallest trash bins, 35 gallons, cost $9 per month. That’s $144 less per year than the $252 maximum for a big bin. Right now all customers without compost bins should be getting a $9 quarterly credit on their bills.

City Councilman Kevin Flynn has been hearing from people in his southwest Denver district who downsized carts earlier this year expecting compost bins to arrive sooner and are trying to figure out what to do with yard waste that won’t fit in those smaller bins.

Flynn was part of the five-member Council minority that voted against instituting the pay-as-you-throw program last summer. He also floated an amendment to delay the implementation of the program until this October to get the city time to hire the necessary drivers to meet its lofty goals — doubling recycling pickup from bi-weekly to every week and adding free citywide composting — but that amendment failed.

For decades the city paid for trash collection out of its general fund before the new program was voted in. Compost was the only collection service the city charged for prior to 2023, $9.75 per month. There are around about 30,000 legacy customers who had compost bins prior to the change, according to the city.

With the help of $5,000 signing bonuses, the solid waste management division is at 92% staffing for its truck drivers, Lacayo said. On-time pickups are happening on a 93% basis so far in 2023, she added, with Friday built in as an open day to complete missed collections. Spotty service was a major pain point for the department last year when it first went to a four-day-per-week schedule largely because of staff shortage.

Flynn credits the department for getting staffed up quickly and for keeping track of when customers requested smaller bins. He switched from a 95-gallon bin to the smallest 35-gallon bin at the beginning of the year. His smaller bin wasn’t delivered until March but he was credited for the price difference on his second quarterly bill from the city.

It’s Flynn’s understanding that his district is among those that won’t be getting compost bins until 2024 — unwelcome news he will be passing along to constituents.

“I don’t know if that means January 2 or July 1 and that’s distressing,” he said.

City leaders knew that public education about what is compostable and what isn’t would be a critical part of the program and that is a central part of the slow rollout of compost bins.

That’s especially true after the state changed its composting rules in April in response to widescale contamination of the compost stream with noncompostable materials. When Denverites do get their bins all that is allowed to go into them is food scraps and yard debris like grass clippings and tree limbs. Other items, including greasy pizza boxes, packaging and paper products labeled as biodegradable, must go in the trash.

A1 Organics, the largest compost manufacturer in the state, was the driver behind those changes. The company is Denver’s partner in processing organic material put into its compost bins.

Denver deserves credit for going slow, said Clinton Sander, A1 Organics’ marketing director. The state needs to restart its conversations around contamination in the compost stream so people know how impactful it can be. Compost is much harder to sort through than recycling.

High-quality compost has a host of environmental benefits that go well beyond cutting down greenhouse gas emissions from landfills, he said. Compost is a “soil amendment:” that can improve carbon sequestration, water retention and provide many other benefits.

“Lets’s start simple and build on success,” Sander said. “Let’s do it right, not just throw a lot of bins out there and confuse people. That’s not going to be successful.”

Now-former mayor Michael Hancock was talking about creating a pay-as-your-throw trash program in Denver as far back as 2011. But what really motivated Council members to approve it last summer was the city’s low landfill diversion rates and the worsening climate crisis.

The city’s diversion rate at the beginning of 2023 was 26%, according to Lacayo. Over the first six months of the year, it has gone up to 29%. That’s largely on the strength of a 12% increase in recycling collections. That figure represents 2,443 more tons of recyclable material. Compost collections are also up 6% among the city’s 30,000 existing customers, Lacayo said.

But the goals are much higher. The city wants to hit 50% diversion by 2027 and 70% by 2032.

Just how well Denver pulls off its pivot to pay-as-you-throw has yet to be seen. In a report issued last year, City Auditor Tim O’Brien highlighted a host of concerns about the city’s existing trash collection program and its readiness to enact greatly expanded services. The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure staff agreed to a long list of recommendations from O’Brien’s office including that it draft a strategic plan by the end of this year that will address trash collection performance including whether service is reliable and if the city is charging enough or too much for that service.

The auditor will be following up on those recommendations. His biggest concerns were about a lack of sufficient staffing and the trucks needed to do the work.

“I just think it hadn’t been thought through as well as it could have been at the beginning,” O’Brien said this week. “Anecdotally, I can tell you I haven’t gotten my compost bin yet.”

What you can do

The city is running on a six- to eight-week delay for cart exchanges but expects to catch up next month, a city official said. For Denverites who don’t want to wait for a dropoff, carts can be brought to the city’s storage facility at 2013 S. Osage St. and exchanged in person between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Residents can also bring compost and extra recyclables to the city’s dropoff center at 7400 Cherry Creek S. Drive between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday.

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