Come January, Denver will implement the first stage of its pay-as-you-throw trash pickup program.

The changes come with plenty of apprehension from residents who have seen the reliability of their service falter this year amid staffing shortages at the city’s solid waste management division. Denver Auditor Tim O’Brien and his staff are among those who aren’t confident the city can pull it all off. 

In November, the Denver Auditor’s Office released a bruising report on the city’s trash collections services as they stand now and the city’s preparedness to expand that work for the pay-as-you-throw program. Based on research done between February and July of this year, the auditor’s office found that the city’s solid waste division wasn’t effectively set up to collect the waste city residents were producing even before expanding recycling and compost service. 

“The audit found the Solid Waste Management Division lacks strategic guidance and quality data, has an aging fleet of waste collection trucks and does not have enough staff for its current operations,” O’Brien wrote in a Nov. 17 letter accompanying that report. “We found this new program was not effectively designed to ensure stable funding or to advance the city’s environmental goals, and it may worsen existing service-delivery issues for residents.”

But officials with the Denver Department of Transportation of Infrastructure are preaching they are ready to take on the pay-as-you-throw program next month and pledged to improve practices going forward.

In a response letter to the audit, Margaret Medellin, the city’s deputy manager of utilities, agreed to all the steps recommended by O’Brien and his team. That includes drafting a strategic plan by the end of next year that will address trash collection performance including whether service is reliable and if the city is charging enough or too much.

“(The division) will adjust the program as necessary as a result of these performance reviews,” Medellin’s letter reads.

The division also plans to bring vehicle procurement in-house to address concerns about aging trucks, according to Medellin’s letter.

But in the more pressing short term, the division has made strides in hiring and is calling in some outside help to ensure weekly recycling pickup is reliable starting next month.

The City Council on Monday signed off on a three-year, $13.5 million contract with Little Dumpsters, a Douglas County-based private trash hauler that will be handling recycling collections for about 28,000 of the city’s roughly 180,000 residential waste customers.

That contract should provide a bridge to get the solid waste division through the pay-as-you-throw growing pains, Medellin said at the council meeting.

Richard Villa, the solid waste division’s interim director, touted that (thanks in part to $5,000 signing bonuses) his department should have 118 of the 121 drivers it needs to handle the start of the program in place by Dec. 19. On Monday, division staff interviewed another nine applicants and expected to make eight job offers, Villa said. That puts it on track to handle expanded composting when that portion of the pay-as-you-throw program is rolled out later next year.

Councilman Kevin Flynn, who was among the nays when the council voted 8 to 5 to approve the collection changes in June, called the rate of hiring remarkable. Prior to voting against the program, Flynn had floated an amendment that would have delayed implementing the program until October 2023 to make time for more hiring but it was rejected. On Monday, he noted that missed trash collection is one of the most common complaints that council members hear from constituents. 

Pay-as-you-throw is a wide-ranging shakeup to the way the city collects trash, recycling and compost waste. Most Denver homeowners will have to start paying out of pocket — between $9 and $21 a month, depending on how big a bin they need — to have their trash emptied every week. It’s a service that for decades was paid for out of the general fund. Meanwhile, recycling collection will go from every other week to weekly and composting will be free to any residential customer who wants it, though it will take months yet to get compost bins out to all those interested. 

Southwest Denver resident Dan Pierson is among the people who called Flynn’s office this year about his missed trash pickups.

“I would have been glad to vote for a tax increase because it’s fairly transparent to me,” Pierson said this week of the pay-as-you-throw program. “But they can’t pick up my trash on time now.”

Pay-as-you-throw comes on the heels of the city changing up trash collection schedules at the beginning of the year specifically due to driver shortages. Those changes condensed pickups into four days as opposed to five. 

That arrangement has not worked well in Pierson’s neighborhood near the Loretto Heights campus. 

“It was almost like they flipped a switch at the first of the year in 2022,” he said. 

He estimates that his trash bin and recycling bin has been picked up as scheduled each Thursday maybe five or six times all year. 

“The rest of the time it’s been a day late. At least one or two days,” Pierson said. “It’s the entire neighborhood. Half the time we have our streets lined with trash cans. It’s ugly. It’s dangerous.”

The auditor’s report found that calls to the city’s 311 customer service line skyrocketed in January after the collection schedule changes were made. More than 5,600 calls were received that month. Dating back to the middle of 2019, the city had never received more than 3,300 calls for missed pickups in a month. The number of calls went down significantly after January.

Pierson is expecting to pay $252 for his trash collection services next year, $21 a month for a 95-gallon bin, the largest available. He’s glad to have recycling service and while he doesn’t intend to use the new free composting bins scheduled to go out to Denver customers, he knows many of his neighbors will and supports that too. 

But he has a lot of questions that mailers announcing the trash collection changes didn’t answer for him. What will his billing look like? Is the city going to be spending money on overhead like sending bills and processing payments? Who will make sure compost and recycling bins aren’t contaminated with trash? Drivers are already overworked, he said. 

Getting the public familiar with a new quarterly billing system is the public works department’s next focus, spokeswoman Vanessa Lacayo said. It’s an effort that will play out between January and March. Paperless billing will be available online. Residents will also be able to change their desired trash bin sizes through the website. Discounts of 50% to 100% are available to low-income residents, she said. A link to the application is available at denvergov.org.

A core aim of the change is to push people to divert recyclable and compostable waste away from greenhouse gas-generating landfills. The city will have the ability to fine people who are found to be contaminating their recycling and compost bins with trash but in the early going the focus will be on education, Lacayo said.  That will mean drivers flagging contaminated bins so city staff can reach out to residents after and highlight proper disposal. 

After the new billing and weekly recycling pickup schedules become more established, the city will move on to educating residents about what can and cannot be composted via the forthcoming green bins, Lacayo said. Right now, about 30,000 Denverites pay for city composting. Twenty-five more compost trucks are on order to ensure the city can services however many more of the city’s 180,000 solid waste customers sign up.

“People can probably call right now if they want to opt out of composting,” Lacayo said “We’re hoping, though, that people give it a try and use these services. They are included at no added charge.” 

It’s the prospect of so much more biodegradable trash being turned into compost that has Alex Roth excited for the pay-as-you-throw rollout. The environmental benefits were the reason the city took on the overhaul in the first place.

Roth, who lives in Sunnyside, used to have a backyard compost system but switched to a city bin because the commercial composting the city offers can break down heartier things like pizza boxes.

Roth has had one missed compost pickup at his house but he’s still excited about the coming changes for the environmental benefits.

Ultimately, this is absolutely the right direction for our city and our state,” he said. “Does it give me a little bit of concern that we are going to be able to tackle this in the timeline that was proposed? Yes, but I am cautiously optimistic that everything will be on track moving forward.” 

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