Consumers have questions on Denver’s garbage-by-volume fees

Some of Stacie Gilmore’s northeast Denver constituents may be fans of city plans to turn recycling and composting into a universal weekly proposition, and charge fees for garbage by volume. 

But others have some big questions. 

Can the city place a lien on homes that don’t pay the monthly fee for a garbage bin, which range up to $21 a month for the biggest waste cart? 

Are there fines for mixing in fee-based garbage with “free” recycling? If so, does that mean someone is sorting through everyone’s garbage?

And is anyone worried about elderly residents or people living with disabilities, who if the plan passes would be wrangling three heavy carts — garbage, recycling, composting — into alleyways or to the curb every week? 

“The fees have been a major point of contention, especially for District 11 residents, which is a majority community of color, and so I think we need to give them the time and the space to share more about what that looks like,” Gilmore said, at a city council briefing on the new waste management plan presented by the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure and the city climate action office. 

Moreover, Gilmore told the city officials, “We as the city now are possibly talking about putting liens on people’s homes and for a lot of the constituents that I represent, that’s a non-starter.” 

Denver officials said they have heard those concerns, in dozens of meetings around the city, and plan to work out details of fines and liens in a way that acknowledges consumer budgets and habits. But they also indicate they need enforcement powers if they are going to implement an entirely new fee structure for a vital service to 180,000 households. 

“I want to make it very clear that our priority is education and outreach” before punitive measures, said Jessica Lally, a project manager in the infrastructure department. “We want to make sure that residents understand how to use the carts correctly, how to not contaminate the recycling and compost streams and how to pay their bill, how to log in online.”

Residents using the largest garbage cart of 95 gallons, which will cost $21 a month at full price, wouldn’t be eligible for a lien for non-payment until nearly a year of missed payments, and after months of outreach and warnings, Lally said. 

And for the fees themselves, Denver will be rare among the major cities that have implemented a garbage-pricing plan — bin fees would be reduced on a sliding income scale, city officials say. Denver residents making only 30% of the area median income, for example, would pay nothing for their bins; for a household of four, that income level is $31,450. Households with higher income would qualify for fee reductions of 50% or 75%, before paying full price at a four-person household with income of $68,880. 

One of Denver’s arguments for a recycling and garbage overhaul is the disproportionate toll of past pollution and waste on the city’s lower-income neighborhoods; the darker the blue, the more challenges for that neighborhood. (Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency)

Denver officials are also pointing to fee comparisons with other cities, saying Denver’s proposal is by far the lowest in price by volume. The largest garbage cart in other cities ranges from $34 to $54 a month. 

The city has been talking about a volume garbage fee since 2010, said Grace Rink, director of the Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency. She told the City Council it’s time for Denver to stop climate-damaging methane emissions from landfills, and build better markets to reuse valuable resources. 

“This is it. The time has run out for us to do the really hard work that the climate is demanding of us,” she said. 

There will be garbage inspectors. 

Some residents will accidentally put garbage in the recycling bins, or throw things in compost that don’t break down into soil. Others might try to move garbage, which they would now pay for, into the recycling bins. Still more might move their own overflowing garbage into neighbors’ trash. 

“As part of this initiative, we will have inspectors on the ground checking carts for contamination,” a spokeswoman for the transportation department said in an email. “Education will be the first step as we work to build compliance. Contamination fines will follow after multiple warnings. Fine amounts are being discussed and will be finalized when the ordinance request is submitted to Council.”

Council members told the city officials some of their constituents still wonder why they would have to pay for a service they currently get as a form of tax-funded city services, such as policing, libraries or road paving. 

The city’s response is that the portions of property taxes dedicated to waste hauling don’t currently fund the recycling effort. The proposed ordinance says the city can’t make money on the new fees — if the collected fees turn out to be more than the costs of the expansion, that money will be returned to taxpayers in some form.

City officials are striving to make a connection between global warming, local air pollution, and the benefits of a recycling expansion, as they demonstrate the proposal around Denver. Methane contributes to greenhouse gas production, and also contributes to local ozone and smog, impacting air quality in the lowest-income neighborhoods in a bracket from the northeast, along I-70, and to the west of I-25, according to one map in their slide show. 

The city expects the new waste and recycling program to generate about $35 million in fees in its first full year, if about 45% of residents choose the largest, 95-gallon waste cart. Proponents want the city council to vote on the plan in June, and roll out weekly recycling beginning in the fall. Other components, including composting bins for all single-family home residents, may have to wait for supplies to arrive. 

Some council members at the briefing were in strong support of the overhaul, saying they get constant demands for a weekly instead of twice-a-month recycling pickup. Many also like the universal composting bins, which currently cost nearly $10 a month and are only brought to those who sign up. 

Denver’s schoolchildren can help their households sort out the new recycling rules, and where to put what, said Council Member Amanda Sandoval, representing northwest Denver. 

“So we’re teaching our kids in our public school system, and then we also are following up with that behavior at our house,” Sandoval said.

Denver is currently removing only about 26% from the garbage stream through recycling and composting, city waste officials said. Portland is removing 81%, Los Angeles is at 76%, Seattle is at 54%, and Salt Lake City is at 40%, the officials said. 

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