Single Mountain Stream

WHEN MOST PEOPLE THINK OF DENVER, they picture pristine, snow-capped mountain ranges and crisp, clean air. A big part of maintaining that unspoiled image is keeping the city clean by getting recyclables where they need to go. But in 2002, the Denver Recycles program was on the verge of elimination. A series of budget cuts culminated in a city council proposal to axe the program entirely. But public outcry and support from Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper led to an overhaul of the program instead.

Charlotte Pitt, recycling program manager for the city and county of Denver, says her department viewed the crisis as an opportunity to improve and even expand the program while trimming inefficiency. “We actually sold this new program as an investment in cutting long-term costs,” she says. “We introduced it as a budget reduction.”

The key to their approach, Pitt says, was an honest assessment of Denver Recycles' shortcomings. “We took a long, hard look at the way we were currently operating and what we needed to achieve. We obviously needed to achieve some route efficiencies. We needed to get our guys off the streets and out of the business of lifting. We were seeing a large number of worker injuries, which were resulting in workers' comp claims and lost time.”

Administrators also looked at how they could better serve the city's residents. In Denver, residential waste and recycling collection are paid for out of a general fund. So while residents do not see a direct charge for recycling service, they do have to subscribe. Pitt says that of the 160,000 eligible homes, roughly 50 percent take advantage of the recycling services. She hopes that percentage will rise as residents learn about the new system.

When the reassessment of the recycling program began, the city was using compartmentalized trucks for dual-stream pick-up. Customers who did not take advantage of Denver's recycling services complained about the city requiring them to sort the recyclables. To boost participation, the city decided to begin moving toward a single-stream collection system.

“The one thing we needed to make all of these program changes happen was processing capability,” Pitt says. “There wasn't a single-stream [material recovery facility] in Colorado.”

Since Denver could not build its own MRF, it issued a request for proposals. Pitt says the city received three strong bids and awarded the contract in May 2004 to Tri-R Recycling (which was later purchased by Recycle America Alliance/Waste Management), which redesigned and retrofitted an existing dual-stream facility. Within 12 months, the new single-stream MRF was open for business, accepting material from Denver and nearby communities.

To take advantage of the new single-stream processing, Denver Recycles began replacing the small sorting bins residents had been using with large, purple, lidded carts. This made it easier for residents to collect their recyclables and roll them to the curb without having to sort the materials. An education and outreach campaign, dubbed “Rethink Recycling: Easier Than Ever,” coincided with the rollout.

Pitt says about 11,000 of the new carts have been delivered to customers since the program began last summer. Out of that number, only a handful of residents have called to complain. The project's organizers see this as encouraging.

“We gauge response a lot on how many negative comments we get,” Pitt quips. “Because people don't call in much if they like it.”

In October, the city began deploying new automated recycling trucks. So far, 20 percent of Denver Recycles customers are serviced using the automated truck and cart system. Pitt says this limited launch was helpful in gauging the program's potential for success. “We're definitely seeing those routes become more efficient,” she says. “We're kind of growing into them. We've been adding a little bit more. It's been our test.”

The early results are encouraging. “Between June and December of 2005, we had about 6,000 new homes sign up for service,” Pitt says. “We have seen about a 20 percent increase in tonnage collected.”

Response to the program has been so enthusiastic, in fact, that Mayor Hickenlooper put the automated collection system on the fast track. The project is now fully budgeted for completion by spring 2007, more than two-and-a-half years ahead of the original schedule. “The mayor's office is obviously getting good feedback, too,” Pitt says.

One surprising aspect of the transition thus far is the low level of contamination. “Our crews have been auditing customers very heavily,” Pitt says. “We are really not finding too many things in the new cart system that weren't supposed to be there. We are running into a couple of plastic bags, a couple of plastic cups, the odd milk carton here and there. But it really isn't bad.”

Pitt expects contamination levels to rise as the automated system takes root during the next two years and the tonnage collected rises. In general, despite its early success, the Denver Recycles team is proceeding with an equal measure of caution and optimism.

“We still have a lot to learn with the program,” Pitt admits. “But we're feeling fairly comfortable that we've made the right decision for the city. We were asked to make the program as efficient as possible, to get it as close to breaking even as possible, to make our customer base happy as well as then diverting more material. That's pretty lofty, but we think we're heading down the right path.”
Steven Averett
Associate Editor