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Undercover video shows city dumping recyclable trash carts: "We take them to the dump" says Denver worker

Undercover video shows city dumping recyclable trash carts
Undercover video shows city dumping recyclable trash carts 04:42

When the City of Denver began charging residents for trash collection in January, roughly 30,000 people traded in their larger plastic trash carts for smaller ones to save money on their monthly trash bills. Smaller carts incur smaller monthly fees, larger carts cost more.

But a CBS News Colorado investigation has found that at least 3,000 of those carts -- which the manufacturers say are fully recyclable -- were crushed and then dumped in an area landfill by the City of Denver.

"It's irrational not to recycle these carts," said Denver resident Carol Lehr. "That's the whole idea, right?"


Lehr traded in her larger cart for a smaller one several months ago and said the city worker who came to her home told her, "Your trash cart is going to be trashed. It gets put in a trash truck and it gets taken out to the city landfill."

The disconnect was not lost on Lehr as the City of Denver has been pushing residents to divert waste away from landfills and increase recycling. According to a long term city sustainability plan, by 2027 the city is hoping to divert 50% of all solid waste away from landfills and to recycling or composting.

The manufacturers of most of the city's plastic carts, Toter and Rehrig Pacific, both tout the recyclability of their plastic trash carts and say they are committed to sustainability. Toter writes on their website that for municipalities, they will "Help identify a third-party recycler to ensure (carts) are not sent to a landfill. Toter carts are fully recyclable."

Kristin Kinder, Toter's parent companies' vice president of sustainability, told CBS News Colorado, "The majority of a cart is plastic molecules we can use again."

She said recycling these carts "is the right thing to do."


 Earlier this year, an administrator with Rehrig said its roll-out carts are recyclable. The carts can be processed and used again in manufacturing. Erika Daley with Rehrig Pacific said, "Any plastic product we produce, we offer to buy it back at the end of its useful life and recycle that and get it back into our products. That's really the truest example of the circular economy -- it's taking an old recycling bin and making a new recycling bin with it, and that's exactly what we do."

But in May of this year, an undercover CBS News Colorado crew exchanged a larger plastic cart for a smaller one at the City of Denver's cart maintenance facility at 2013 South Osage Street. With a concealed camera rolling, a worker from the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure said, "We have so many cans we're tossing all the old ones out. We're just crushing them down, taking them to the dump. We have so many of them, it's crazy."


 A CBS News Colorado hidden camera recorded two workers tossing what appeared to be useable and recyclable carts into a trash truck where they were being crushed before being taken to a landfill.

Asked why all the carts weren't being recycled, the city worker said, "I don't know why, I don't know why they don't, no clue. That's the city for you."

Nancy Kuhn, a spokesperson for Denver's Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, declined to speak to CBS News Colorado on camera but conceded the city has thrown out roughly 3,000 plastic bins, which the manufacturers say can be recycled. But Kuhn insisted city workers were exaggerating how many carts were being taken to the landfill.

Kuhn said "We dispose of carts that we can't repair or recirculate because they're too dirty. Unfortunately the workers misspoke ... we are NOT throwing away all of the carts coming in for exchange." She went on to say that up until now, the City of Denver had not been able to identify a vendor to recycle the plastic carts.

"Previously there was no recycling option for the old carts, but we now understand an opportunity exists to recycle them and so we're looking to get a vendor on board. We do now believe there are vendors out there that can/will recycle our oldest trash carts; we will know more after we put out a Request for Proposal (RFP) and the vendors respond."

But Kristin Kinder said a survey her company did several years ago showed that about 2/3 of municipalities and haulers were already recycling the plastic carts, while 1/3 were not.

"To me," said Kinder, "we should be capturing almost all of these carts."

Kuhn suggested putting 3,000 out of 30,000 carts into a landfill was only part of the story.

"Despite having to throw away these carts, we're excited to report that recycling was up 17% in Q1 of 2023 and what we sent to the landfill was down by 9.8%, so overall, the big picture shows we are headed in the right direction."

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