Garbage In, Garbage Out

Why Dallas' recycling program is a $17 million joke

On January 4 at Community Waste Disposal's recycling center off Northwest Highway, driver Israel Esparza pulled his truck onto the scales, fresh from his route in the Walnut Hill area with a load of bottles, cans and newspapers retrieved from the city's loyal recyclers. He used a keypad linked to a computer and the scales to punch in his truck number and route.

The computer spit out a ticket. It said his load weighed 2,580 pounds. It also showed the time, 5:32 p.m.

Two minutes later, at 5:34 p.m., Esparza and his truck were back on the scales with another load. This time, the computer's scale ticket showed that his truck contained 2,440 pounds of materials.

Joanne Hill stands at the Dry Gulch Recycling Center, where she has spent 15 years offering voluntary recycling services without spending taxpayer money.
Mark Graham
Joanne Hill stands at the Dry Gulch Recycling Center, where she has spent 15 years offering voluntary recycling services without spending taxpayer money.
Unlike most other materials picked up at the curb, aluminum is one of the commodities that actually has a consistently strong market, recycling experts say.
Mark Graham
Unlike most other materials picked up at the curb, aluminum is one of the commodities that actually has a consistently strong market, recycling experts say.

That's pretty fast work for a city contractor, or anyone else for that matter. Not counting any curbside stops for the second load, and being generous with the roughly 10-mile round trip to Walnut Hill, his truck would have had to travel at 300 mph just to get to the border of his route and back.

At the end of his day, Esparza stapled the scale tickets to a log sheet on which he wrote that he dropped off the second load at 3 p.m., two hours before the time stamped on the ticket. He reported that he stopped 71 times for recycled goods during the first trip and 68 times during the second.

Esparza, who is not with the company anymore and could not be reached for comment, isn't the only driver at Community Waste Disposal with such a speedy truck, and his log sheet isn't the only example of curious bookkeeping at the company that seems to have turned around Dallas' troubled multimillion-dollar recycling program.

In February, Jody Puckett, the city's department of sanitation services director, told the Dallas City Council that in less than two years Community Waste Disposal increased recycling tonnage by 11 percent and participation by a whopping 43 percent, or by 15,000 Dallas households. After 10 years of sputtering, it seemed recycling was finally catching on in Dallas.

Or was it? A close examination of the city-funded recycling program casts doubt on claims made by Community Waste Disposal. What's more, the review suggests a conclusion that most politicians would dare not utter in public: The city's curbside recycling program is a waste of time and money. Your money.

Of course, it's difficult to evaluate a program without hard and fast numbers, and with Community Waste Disposal, the numbers are better described as fast and loose. The company stands to net up to $16.7 million in a five-year period for a program that the Dallas Observer found has so little oversight that it's practically run on an honor system. The company uses its own scales, trucks and employees and enjoys such liberal reporting requirements that no one outside the company can say how much is really being collected or recycled. Community Waste Disposal claims that about 340 tons a year, or roughly 4 percent, of its collections aren't recycled, a figure far below nationwide averages. Most programs dump anywhere from 20 to 60 percent of what they collect, one expert says.

Records obtained by the Observer suggest and sources say that nothing about Dallas' recycling program is going as well as it seems. Drivers invented collection counts, took multiple trips across the scales for the same loads and fudged records to conceal it. The Observer also found that since November 2000 company scales miscounted thousands of truckloads by about 420 pounds each and that the company reported the inflated truck weights to the city only after a former employee threatened to blow the whistle. The company subsequently told the city about the scale problem but then only corrected the weight by about 120 pounds per load.

But why quibble over a few hundred tons? Recycling is a goodthing, a civic virtue like voting. Schoolchildren are taught that, and besides, any amount that is recycled saves valuable resources and scarce landfill space.

Except that landfill space is not really scarce. We once thought it was, but we were wrong. A panic over landfill shortage in the early 1990s spawned legislation and prompted a rush to recycling, but the dreaded shortage never materialized. Landfill space now is considered so abundant, recycling so ineffectual and municipal garbage so environmentally benign that recycling advocates don't even use the landfill-saving argument anymore.

Even if you believe there is a shortage of landfill space, as Dallas City Council members did two years ago, and apply the generous tonnage totals provided by Community Waste Disposal, the current five-year program would do little to extend the life of the city's landfill. Optimistically, the program's entire run could be expected to save at best a few weeks' worth of space by the time the landfill closes--probably in about 40 years. What's more, about 232,000 Dallas households, the city's poorest families included, will be required to pay between $8 and $15 a year for a program that most don't use.

Mike Nelson, a former Community Waste Disposal supervisor, says he remembers drivers going for blocks in poorer Dallas neighborhoods without seeing anything at the curb on recycling day. "South Dallas, what do you got? These people don't read the paper. The only thing they might set out is beer bottles," he says.

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