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Compost and recycling bins are seen on Dec. 14, 2021, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Denver residents would pay a monthly fee for garbage hauling while getting recycling and compost bins picked up weekly as part of the deal, in a proposed major overhaul of waste handling aimed at lifting local and statewide recycling rates closer to the national average. 

Residents of single-family homes and apartments up to seven units would pay up to $21 a month for the largest garbage bin — less for smaller bins, as an incentive to recycle — and enjoy a doubling in recycling pickup frequency. Low-income residents would pay less on a sliding scale, down to zero for some. Dwellers in larger apartment buildings would still have to arrange for private-pay recycling, as they currently do. 

Recycling advocates and the city’s sustainability office are pushing hard for the change, which gets its first city council committee review Tuesday, with the hope of passing a full ordinance by June. Advocates want to get the program started by fall. But not everyone on city council is fully on board with a new fee replacing a service currently funded by overall property tax and general fund revenues.

District 2 Councilman Kevin Flynn does not support the move because he said pickup crews are already understaffed and frequently behind schedule. Further, he said, moving to weekly pickups for recycling and compost increases fuel consumption. He said he doesn’t have a lot of faith in the rebate program for lower income households.

“It’s another cost burden when we’re already making it enormously expensive to live in this city,” Flynn said.

Instead, Flynn proposed better education about composting, and giving more bins to households with larger amounts of recycling. He said all the input from his district has been in opposition to the program. If citizens start paying for their trash, he said there’s less of an incentive to recycle properly.

“I just think it’s a bad idea overall,” Flynn said.

Advocates for the program changes counter that other Colorado cities have stepped up for the environment, and it’s past due for Denver to make recycling innovations.

“The majority of the waste we produce is recyclable or compostable. The cities with the best recycling rates are the ones with programs most like this,” said Danny Katz, executive director of the nonprofit consumer advocacy group CoPIRG. “Everybody’s able to lean in.” 

Denver’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency says the city’s rate of keeping waste out of the landfill is about 26%, compared to a national average of about 34%. Statewide, recycling advocates say the rate is even worse at 15%, and they are backing a bill in the legislature to require consumer products makers to fund a statewide recycling program

Waste buried in landfills deteriorates and creates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that accelerates climate change. Recycling advocates also say that reusing materials from aluminum to glass to cardboard uses less energy to create new products than making the items from raw materials. They argue that relatively isolated states like Colorado need help creating the industrial-scale collection and recycling of packaging materials to create a sustainable reuse economy.

Upwards of 9,000 communities nationwide use similar models of expanded waste services to serve nearly 40% of Americans. Changes to waste programs have resulted in a state-high 58% recycling rate in Loveland. Big cities like Austin and Salt Lake City also have expanded programs and both recycle almost twice as much as Denver.

Denver officials say residents consistently ask for more recycling support, including complaints that their bins overflow in the current schedule of twice-a-month recyclables pickup. Many also want automatic access to green composting bins, which are currently rented to Denver residents for $9.75 per month. About 29,000 Denver residents pay the extra composting fee, officials have said. 

The proposal headed for the city council hearing would charge $9 for a small trash cart, $13 for a medium cart, and $21 for large. 

Recycling advocates and the sustainability office know they must confront some Denver residents’ resistance to starting payments for something they perceived as included in city living. The fee is not only needed to support an expanded program, Katz said, it’s part of the culture change needed to alter habits. 

“When somebody perceives something to be free, we’ll put a lot more waste in the trash bin, and a lot of that could be composted or recycled,” he said. “This proposal will actually ensure that we’re seeing what the true cost of our waste is. People have the price signals they need.”

Consumers will be asking whether the new program means they are paying double for waste and recycling, officials acknowledge — once through their taxes, and again through the monthly recycling fee. The sustainability office responds in its FAQs that if the program is approved, they will track actual costs of new bins, more employees, and more frequent service. 

If the fees and current waste management budget are more than enough to keep running it, the city website says, “once the program has been implemented and is stable, the city will have a public conversation about how to reallocate this funding.”

Michael Booth is the Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of the Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He is co-author with Jennifer Brown of the Colorado Book Award-winning food safety investigation “Eating Dangerously.” Booth was part of teams that won two Pulitzer Prizes for breaking news. He also writes frequently about inexplicable obsessions that include tamarisk, black-footed ferrets and tire fires. Booth also serves as the underpaid driver for four children, and plans to eventually hike every inch of Colorado.