Trash and Recycling Doesn’t Have Enough Resources Ahead of 2023

Published on November 17, 2022

A composite of three photos showing 1) compacted recycling materials, 2) trash at the landfill, and 3) processed compost.

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DENVER – Denver’s trash, recycling, and compost service is too understaffed and working with aging, unreliable trucks ahead of the 2023 volume-based pricing program or “pay-as-you-throw” program  — which could lead to worsening issues with residential service like missed pickups, according to a new audit from Denver Auditor Timothy M. O’Brien, CPA.

“Denver is already struggling to keep up with trash service for residents,” Auditor O’Brien said. “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.”

Our audit looked at how well the Solid Waste Management Division of the Department of Transportation & Infrastructure is ensuring timely trash and recycling service for 180,000 households and reducing illegal dumping. We also evaluated whether the city is achieving its environmental goals and improving recycling rates.

We found several areas of concern related to how the city is currently serving Denver residents and how it will in the future.

First, the city is providing trash, recycling, and compost services using an aging fleet of trucks and a severely understaffed team.

Nearly half of the division’s fleet — including both waste collection trucks and other division vehicles — have only two years left in their estimated remaining useful life. The average estimated useful life for waste collection trucks is eight years, but the city is still using one truck that is 18 years old.

The city spent more than $10 million between 2019 and 2021 on costly repairs for the aging vehicles. Meanwhile, a new truck would cost approximately $350,000.

Despite being fully aware of the extra costs to the city to maintain an aging fleet, Solid Waste Management officials have no long-term fleet management strategy or regular replacement schedule. Drivers told our auditors that equipment failures had kept them from completing their scheduled routes in the past six months.

Additionally, the city had a 21% vacancy rate among drivers as of June 2022. That vacancy rate could nearly double in 2023 as more positions are needed for expanded recycling and compost service under volume-based pricing.

In addition to vacancies which increased during the COVID-19 pandemic , the city faces challenges to filling the vacant positions because of a competitive labor market for individuals with a commercial driver’s license and often higher wages at private companies.

Meanwhile, since 2021, drivers have been required to work overtime to complete routes and also work voluntary overtime to clean up illegal dumping sites. Most of the drivers we heard from said they are looking to change jobs in the next 12 months.

“Taking care of trash and recycling for Denver’s residents is a tough but essential job,” Auditor O’Brien said. “Overworking our drivers and inspectors will not lead to the best outcomes for them or for our residents because of missed routes and other errors.”

Regarding current trash and recycling services, we found residents might see a slower resolution to reported problems like missed pickups or illegal dumping depending on how they choose to report the issue. Solid Waste Management does not have reliable data to track how well it responds to residents’ complaints and service requests.

Additionally, officials can’t explain or show documentation describing how they decided to change trash and recycling pick-up routes and schedules in 2022. This was the first citywide change to trash routes in 15 years, and it was intended to make collection services more reliable and consistent.

However, there is no documented methodology showing this is the case. Instead, the route changes were associated with a spike in reports of missed pickups. Managers told us the person who designed the new routes retired and the division did not keep this important documentation.

Going into 2023, the city is not prepared to take on its volume-based pricing — or “pay-as-you-throw” — program. Under the new concept, the cost of weekly trash pickup is shifted to residents based on how much they throw away, while recycling and compost service will be included at no extra charge. The city hopes this will incentivize residents to recycle and compost more.

In 2023, officials plan to charge between $9 and $21 per month, based on the size of the trash cart residents choose. This is a significantly lower fee than other cities we looked at with similar programs.

Officials told us they are not sure whether the fees they set for next year will be enough to make the new program self-sustaining in the long run. To achieve that goal, they may need to raise fees in the future.

Because of existing challenges and unresolved future issues, the new program may not be effective at achieving the city’s goal to increase Denver’s waste diversion rate. The program will put increased demand on the city’s aging fleet and limited staff. And more trucks on the road will cause more pollution, which the city may not offset.

The city should create a strategic plan, lay out how it will regularly replace trucks over time, and address staffing gaps for drivers, inspectors, and community awareness and education professionals.

“I think the solid waste team shares many of our concerns about its preparation for the upcoming expanded services in 2023,” Auditor O’Brien said. “I hope our findings can help them better manage resources and plan long-term, but for now they clearly don’t have what they need to ensure success.”

Timothy O'Brien Official Headshot
Denver's Auditor

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