Garbage In, Garbage Out

Why Dallas' recycling program is a $17 million joke

Before he stopped responding to requests for clarifications of his company's records, Greg Roemer, Community Waste Disposal president, talked proudly of his company's accomplishments in Dallas. He said the big boost to recycling weight probably was caused by the addition of glass. And, he and city officials said, more Dallas residents know about recycling because of advertising such as the bright green flier that was mailed out with water bills.

"We got new people undoubtedly to join on, and then we feel along with their help there's been a pretty decent advertising campaign to try to let people know this program is out there and what we're doing," Roemer says. "All in all, that caused an increase in participation."

City officials and recycling advocates maintain that diverting newspapers, cans and bottles to Community Waste Disposal is the right thing to do. Roemer, who in a recent year was reported to be making in the neighborhood of $200,000 a year doing the right thing for Dallas and other cities, agrees. He didn't appreciate a critical eye focused on what might be bad about such a good thing.

Community Waste Disposal has contracts to pick up recyclable materials in Dallas and other North Texas cities. One of its trucks is shown here pulling into the high-security operation.
Mark Graham
Community Waste Disposal has contracts to pick up recyclable materials in Dallas and other North Texas cities. One of its trucks is shown here pulling into the high-security operation.

"It doesn't appear to me," Roemer said shortly before cutting off communication with the Observer, "that you're trying to build a story about how great the program is and what a great contribution it is to the greater good of Dallas."

When the city's recycling program went private two years ago, the newly contracted truck drivers would hop out of their white pickup trucks expecting to find bundled newspapers and washed cans inside aqua blue plastic bags at the curb. Instead, they often found garbage.

Unlike the city's drivers before them, the private contractor was told to leave the trash at the curb. Put a reject sticker on it. Provide the homeowner with information that says recycling materials must be clean and not mixed in with non-recyclable materials. Some Dallas residents didn't like the stickers or having their garbage ignored. When they saw the recycling truck leaving without their trash, they lashed out.

"People chased them down, bitched," Nelson says. His company found out the hard way that Dallas residents weren't very good recyclers.

"The program was absolutely disastrous," says one former employee who, like others, refused to be identified in print. "The first thing you have to do to make a program successful is to educate the consumer and get them not to throw out garbage."

The company's trucks were leaving loads at the curb that the city would have picked up. About the same time, The Dallas Morning News reduced its size by 8 percent by printing on narrower paper. Newspaper is by far the heaviest of the materials the company picks up and accounts for about 75 percent of the overall tonnage collected, company reports say. Despite the lighter newspaper, the company's tonnage kept going up.

Company records suggest an explanation for how that happened; Esparza wasn't the only driver who had curious scale tickets and route logs.

For instance, on March 23, 2001, another driver's tickets read that he dropped off 2,100 pounds from truck No. 526 at 4:39 p.m. Seven minutes later, truck No. 526 dropped off 2,380 pounds. The scale ticket numbers are 4768 and 4765. On the driver's route sheet for the day, however, he reported dropping off the first load at 3:50 p.m. and the second load at 3 p.m.

Other tickets showed longer time gaps, 30 or 45 minutes, but time periods that seem far too short to get to a route, make dozens of stops and return to the scales.

Still other tickets showed drivers dropping off what were purportedly different loads with suspiciously similar weights and at nearly the same time but with different truck identification numbers, which drivers manually punch into the computer at the scales.

One former employee says that supervisors would sometimes help out at the end of a shift when a driver was behind, and that could account for some of the suspect times. But, since the company would not explain what appeared to be oddly brief trips, it's impossible to say. Former employees do confirm that the truck numbers on the scale tickets identify the trucks, and one said it appears that drivers were making two trips across the scales to get double credit for the same load.

Besides the questionable trips across the scales, Community Waste Disposal suffered a "computer glitch" when the company changed the way drivers weighed their loads.

Before the change, a driver would typically take his fully loaded truck onto the scales and get a total weight. Then, the driver would empty his truck and go back to the scales. The empty weight, called tare weight, is subtracted from the full weight by the scale's computer to get an accurate weight of the load. The lighter the truck's empty weight, the more trash the company could claim it collected.

Around November 2000, the company programmed the computer so that a driver could key in his truck number and the scale would automatically put in the approximate empty weight. The one-time-across-the-scale system would save valuable time.

But company records show that after the change the empty weights of all the pickups that service the Dallas area started showing up on scale tickets at 6,240 pounds, about 420 pounds lighter than the trucks' actual average empty weight. In October 2000, the month before the change, the lightest of all the empty trucks was 6,520 pounds, and the heaviest was 7,380 pounds. The company uses 6,660 as the standard empty weight now.

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