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

Short staffing, an aging truck fleet and lack of planning threaten Denver’s rollout of a major recycling and composting overhaul planned to launch in less than two months, according to a warning-packed review by the city Auditor’s Office. 

The vacancy rate for drivers in trash and recycling hauling hit 21% in June, and the rate could nearly double in 2023 with the demands of universal composting and recycling moving to a weekly instead of twice-a-month service, independently elected Auditor Tim O’Brien reported. 

“Given the city’s strained resources, the expansion of recycling and compost service next year will be a significant burden that might not come with the hoped-for environmental benefits,” said a statement from O’Brien accompanying the audit results. 

The Auditor’s Office said the Solid Waste Management Division review had been scheduled years ago, and took on added urgency because of public complaints about dropped or delayed services in 2022 and concerns about the impact of the 2023 overhaul.

The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, which oversees solid waste and recycling and will carry out the new program, vowed to move ahead with the changes despite the challenges, saying the public and community leaders have sought an expansion for years. 

“Denver is poised to become an industry leader in its implementation of a volume-based trash collection program,” said Vanessa Lacayo, a spokesperson for the department.  ”We acknowledge it will be challenging and imperfect in a post-pandemic world, but we won’t let that challenge deter us.  Our community has shown, as recently again as last week, that it values moving the needle on sustainability and we’re going to push forward with our commitment.”

Denver voters last week approved, with more than 70% support, an expansion of mandatory recycling to include apartment buildings of eight or more units. Under current law, it’s up to the landlord whether to supply recycling and composting in multi-unit buildings.

Critics of the cost and timing of the 2023 waste overhaul called for a postponement. 

“We’re courting a disastrous rollout here, it begs to be delayed,” said Denver City Council Member Kevin Flynn. He wants the new program put off until at least October. 

 “Clearly the auditor has shown the rollout in less than a month and a half is not ready,” Flynn said. “And it will only worsen the service problems that have become the number one or two complaint our council offices are receiving.”

Denver’s City Council approved the overhaul, intended to begin in January, after debating the plan over the spring and summer. Denver’s current program includes recycling as part of single home trash pickup paid for out of city general funds. Composting costs just under $10 a month for those who opt in. 

The new program will charge all single-family residents a fee based the size of trash bin they order. The largest bin, which will continue to be picked up weekly, will be $21 a month, though Denver says it is offering discounts based on a sliding income scale. Recycling containers will be provided free along with the trash cart, and recycling will be picked up once a week, twice as often as before. Composting bins will also be provided free to everyone. 

Denver officials and climate activists say the pay-by-volume model is the best way to reduce trash that wastes money and adds to climate change in the production phase, while also producing the greenhouse gas methane when in a landfill. A new report on Colorado recycling found the state reducing waste at only 16% on average, while the national average is double that. 

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Some council members like Flynn opposed the change, saying it was adding a big expense for residents who previously got the service under existing taxes. Flynn, among others, also doubted city departments were ready to handle the extra work, given personnel and equipment shortages reported by almost every employer in Colorado.

Recycling advocates backing other measures have also warned that Colorado residents all need to be educated how to properly sort materials so that loads of recyclables or compost are not contaminated by unusable plastic or hazardous waste and therefore spoiled for further use. 

Purchases of nearly all vehicles across the economy have been hampered by supply chain shortages and a struggle to find workers. Specialty vehicles can be even harder to come by, with delays in acquiring key parts ranging from steel to microchips. 

The new audit said Denver spent more than $10 million from 2019 to 2021 on repairs to its aging waste management fleet, while a new truck would cost $350,000. Nearly half of the division’s fleet will be useless in two years, the audit said. 

Denver compressed and moved around its pickup schedules in 2022 to try to account for the staffing shortages and missed pickup days. The audit says that while it was the first citywide change to routes in 15 years, department officials couldn’t offer documentation or explain how they made the decision. 

“Instead, the route changes were associated with a spike in reports of missed pickups,” the audit said. Managers told auditors the person who made the decisions retired and no one kept documentation of the changes. 

The auditors also said many of the drivers they talked to “are looking to change jobs in the next 12 months.” 

Denver officials have said that if the new waste fees collect more money than it costs to run the new programs, they will somehow make taxpayers whole. The auditors appear concerned, however, that Denver does not have a clear idea what the costs will be or whether the fees are enough. The $9 to $21 rates for trash bins in 2023 are, the audit said, “a significantly lower fee than other cities we looked at with similar programs.”

Michael Booth

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: booth@coloradosun.com Twitter: