• Robin Kniech

The trash we throw away and bury in our landfill has a direct impact on air quality and the rate of climate change, because landfill waste produces one of the most harmful greenhouse gas emissions – methane. Reducing landfill waste will fight rising temperatures and poor air quality, as recycling uses 92% less energy than creating the same products from raw materials.

Fires and drought on the Front Range over the winter months point to worsening climate impacts that are poised to upend our expectations of temperatures and seasonal weather patterns, not just on coasts and in other countries, but right here in Denver. And the health effects of these changes are hitting Black, indigenous and other communities of color especially hard with disproportionate asthma rates, less access to air conditioning and other risks. Denverites care deeply about our natural environment and have overwhelmingly supported pro-environment ballot initiatives and council actions in the past. Together, we’re moving toward renewable energy, energy efficiency, electric vehicles and electrification plans – but we haven’t moved the needle on recycling and composting habits of Denver residents to reduce the landfill waste we bury every year.

We’ve been trying to get there for years through education campaigns and fee-based compost services for residential customers, but it hasn’t been enough. Improvements have been too slow to make a meaningful difference in our diversion rate, or the amount of waste being recycled or composted rather than landfilled. Denver’s current diversion rate of 26% is below the national average of 34%, less than half of Boulder (53%) and less than a third of San Francisco (80%) and Los Angeles (76%). We know that Denver can and must improve our recycling and composting rate.

Denver has been exploring the best policy to achieve this outcome for more than a decade, including recommendations for policy change from the community-led Climate Action Task Force, the city’s Sustainable Food Policy Council and many community organizations and leaders. Denver’s current policy has made it harder for residents to do the right thing, because it has charged residents to compost and only picked up recycling every other week, while making it free to throw away as much as they want – eliminating any incentive to compost or recycle.

In response, Denver’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability, and Resiliency (CASR), in partnership with Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure and Division of Solid Waste, has researched and is exploring a proven expanded waste service approach that would provide Denver residents free, weekly recycling and compost services, while charging people less if they throw less trash away. Customers would choose a small, medium or large trash cart size, and the monthly fee would vary accordingly – the smaller the cart, the smaller the fee. All customers would receive weekly composting and recycling for free, which has been a growing need for many years and became increasingly apparent during the pandemic as households recycled more cardboard and plastics from online orders and deliveries. The current proposal includes an affordability index with instant rebates to support lower-income households or those on fixed incomes. Denver would be the only city in the nation that discounts trash fees for low-income residents. Additionally, tens of thousands of residents would simply be able to switch from the compost fee they are paying today to a smaller fee for selection of the smallest trash cart.

Residential waste policy change isn’t the only step we need to take. Multi-family condo and apartment building residents in neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, who already pay for their waste service if their building has more than seven units, should also have better access to recycling and composting to reduce their trash waste. Expanding residential waste services first is the city’s opportunity to lead by example before tackling ways to reduce private waste hauling.

Increasing Denver’s diversion rate is a common-sense way to improve quality of life and reduce climate impacts in Denver. Stakeholder outreach is underway to answer questions and identify any challenges we would need to overcome to take this policy change on as a community.

Robin Kniech is an at-large member of Denver City Council. She can be reached at kniechatlarge@denvergov.org or 720-337-7712.