Garbage In, Garbage Out

Why Dallas' recycling program is a $17 million joke

With the error in place, when a truck weighed in at 6,240 pounds, the computer recorded the extra weight of the truck as recyclable materials.

Company officials say they discovered the error in January 2002 and promptly informed the city. The company and the city "adjusted" the total tonnage to account for the weight, Puckett says. "The tare weights in the electronic system were not correct, so when they went back and checked them and checked each truck and reweighed it, it was off under the tare weight in the system...anywhere from 200 to 400 pounds," she says. "It was corrected probably in January, so probably the numbers that they reported back to me that I reported to the council [at a briefing in February] were the corrected numbers. It made about 800 or 900 tons difference as I recall."

City officials took the company at its word and accepted that the revised tonnage figures were correct, Puckett says. Yet based on a tally of records provided by the company, the Observerfound that the amount the company allowed for lighter trucks was just around 130 pounds. So how much were Community Waste Disposal's totals really off? Using the higher empty truck weight, the total for the company's first full 12 months drops to 7,541 tons, which is about the same amount collected by the city's own drivers in 1999-2000, the year before Community Waste Disposal took over. The city council was told that the company had collected about 1,000 tons more than that.

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.

Depending on which number for total tonnage you use, it is costing city residents between $268 and $300 a ton to have Community Waste Disposal pick up bottles, cans and newspapers once a week. The city's 2001-2002 rate for regular garbage pickup is about $67 a ton.

Although the company acknowledged the computer error in January, it did not tell the city that a lower-level manager reported the glitch to management last summer and that the company provided the city inflated weights for at least five more months, a source says.

Two weeks after reporting the error, the company transferred the employee without explanation. Two weeks after that, he was fired without being told why, though the company later claimed he left on his own. His last day was in mid-August 2001, says a former employee. The company came clean with the supposed glitch only after the fired employee threatened to reveal what the company was doing to inflate its weights for the Dallas program, the former employee claims.

The company's contract stipulates that its pay rate is recalculated each April based on the amount collected during the previous 12 months. The more tons of trash the company collects, the more per household it might be paid. The rate is multiplied by the number of city water customers without regard for whether those customers choose to recycle and is set to go up if collections increase to an average of 956 tons a month. The company is making 78 cents from each residential water account per month now and has the potential to make $1.27 per household. If the company's original reports to the city stood, they would have increased tonnage last year to 775 tons average per month.

And then there is the issue of house counts or set-outs, which supposedly show how many of the city's 232,000 households that pay Community Waste Disposal are using the service. The company claims the number of recyclers rose rapidly. Using Community Waste Disposal's figures for the year, Puckett told the city council in February that the number of Dallas households using the program had jumped from 35,000 to 50,000 since Community Waste Disposal started its contract.

Yet another seemingly improbable figure from company records is the way the loads are recorded. The average weight on some of the loads reported by drivers is as high as 65 pounds per house, and some log sheets report the number of stops at the curbs in unlikely multiples of five or 10. For instance, in January one driver dropped off five loads, and the number of stops he made on the trips were 50, 65, 55, 40 and 60.

Nelson contends the number of households recycling is probably far lower than the city believes. Drivers are supposed to count the houses by using a push-button counter known as a clicker. Nelson claims it is common knowledge at the company that harried drivers used clickers irregularly while jumping in and out of trucks. Nelson says Roemer knew about the problem and ignored suggestions that a counting device be installed on driver doors to count the number of times a driver exited a vehicle for pickups.

Puckett discounts concerns about house counts because, she says, the bottom line is weight. And she said she is not terribly concerned about any of the tonnage numbers provided by the company either.

"I haven't done an audit of them yet...I didn't question the reliability of the numbers...I don't question the reliability of the numbers. I understand an error in tare weights could occur," she says. "If they were trying to steal money from the city, they would have never brought that forward to me. I'm disappointed where you're going, but that's OK. You gotta go where you gotta go."

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