- Denver could adopt a pair of policies this year that respectively transform parts of residential and commercial waste collection and how it’s paid for, and expand access to recycling and compost infrastructure. The city and county currently diverts about 26% of its waste from landfills but has ambitions to double that rate after years of slow progress.
- An expanded waste service proposal that includes switching from biweekly to weekly recycling pickups and offering composting service to all customers — plus a long-awaited plan for volume-based trash pricing, or “pay-as-you-throw” — is expected to be presented to the city council by Denver's Department of Transportation and Infrastructure later this month.
- Separately, advocates of the independently organized Waste No More ballot initiative are readying for the November election, when voters will have the opportunity to greenlight a requirement that all apartment buildings, businesses and events provide recycling and compost pickup. "If you look at many of the large advancements that have occurred in environmental policy in Denver, it's come through the ballot initiative," said campaign co-director Ean Thomas Tafoya.
Colorado's capital city has a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 65% from 2019 levels come 2030. It did not meet its goal of increasing the citywide recycling rate to at least 34% by 2020. According to the city, Denver’s recycling and composting rate stands at about 26%, and the rate has only risen 1% or 2% annually for the last two decades.
Denver's lagging rates fit in with a broader challenge statewide; Colorado's recycling and composting rate was 15.3% in 2020, worse than most other states, according to Colorado Public Interest Research Group and Boulder-based nonprofit recycler Eco-Cycle.
Many Denverites are aware of the problem and more than a decade has passed since Mayor Michael Hancock addressed the possibility of a pay-as-you-throw model early on in his tenure. The city has now laid out ambitions to decrease volumes sent to landfills by offering customers weekly recycling and composting, charging customers a monthly fee based on a trash cart size of their choosing, and encouraging diversion to recycling and compost carts — all with a goal of increasing Denver’s waste diversion rate to 50% or more, thereby cutting methane emissions.
The city services approximately 180,000 households across single-family homes and smaller multifamily buildings, while private haulers handle larger multifamily properties and all other buildings.
The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure anticipates making a presentation to a city council committee later this month “on a proposal to expand our waste collection services and implement volume-based trash pricing,” according to Public Information Director Nancy Kuhn. The presentation is tentatively scheduled for April 26 but the date is yet to be confirmed, Kuhn said in an email. If the city council approves changes later this spring, the city says they would take effect before the end of this year.
DOTI has shared that by shifting monthly fees to residents ($9 for a 35-gallon cart, $13 for 65 gallons and $21 for 95 gallons), general fund dollars that currently cover trash collection will be freed up to support "programs and services that benefit all residents," and allow for a shift to weekly recycling and composting collection. The city says that it's accounting for residents who could be "disproportionately burdened" by a fee and would rebate up to 100% of the cost, a move it says would make Denver "the only city in the nation to offer such a robust discount program for waste services."
Seattle and Austin, Texas, are among the major U.S. cities that have implemented pay-as-you-throw models for trash, alongside curbside composting programs. “We know cities that have economic incentive — it helps,” said Randy Moorman, director of community campaigns at Eco-Cycle. As for why now, Moorman in part pointed to Denver’s recent urgency around climate work and formation of the Office of Climate Action, Sustainability, and Resiliency, which is supporting DOTI’s work on the initiative.
Separately, Eco-Cycle helped draft policy language for the Waste No More ballot initiative, which, if approved, could follow DOTI's 2022 waste services expansion with enforcement deadlines in 2023, 2024 and 2025 for residential properties and food waste generators. Apartment complexes with eight or more units (about one-third of Denver residences) are currently not required to provide recycling or compost services, and supporters say changes would greatly boost waste diversion and reduce inequities.
Waste No More organizers collected more than 11,000 recognized signatures to get on the ballot, and a few weeks ago began an education campaign, Tafoya said.
Grassroots climate organizers have seen how ballot initiatives in Denver have been a powerful tool to drive policy change. For example, in 2017 a narrow majority of voters supported a requirement that large buildings have green or solar roofs. And in 2020, voters opted to raise local sales and use tax by 0.25% to create the Climate Protection Fund, which the city has said could raise up to $40 million a year to enable more mitigation and adaptation initiatives.
Innovation is also happening with Denver's waste outside of government policies; some residents are currently part of an electronics recycling pickup pilot through Closed Loop Partners-backed Retrievr, in partnership with Google, Apple, Amazon, Dell and Microsoft.