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.
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.

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 good thing, 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.

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.

"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.

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 Observer found 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.

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."


In early 2000, about the time the Dallas City Council was considering whether to hire Greg Roemer's 18-year-old company to take over the city's recycling effort, Roemer was involved in a legal battle with newly estranged and longtime business partner Doug Hall.

Court documents say that Roemer fired Hall. Hall alleged that Roemer executed an improper company stock transfer, which Roemer denied. Hall was a popular owner at Community Waste Disposal. After he left the company, Nelson put yellow tape across Hall's door to make it look like a crime scene. Some employees, Nelson says, felt as though losing him was a crime.

By the time they split, Hall and Roemer had come a long way from the small waste-hauling company they started in a barn in Frisco in 1984. They had made a good living after finding a niche in collecting garbage in smaller cities around Dallas, and the company grew quickly. By 1992 they were offering door-to-door recycling in cities within a six-county area, a company brochure says.

According to those who knew both men, Hall was the one who got things done on the street; Roemer was the salesman and businessman who could convince public officials to go with Community Waste Disposal.

Roemer and Hall's legal falling-out ended up in a settlement, with Hall agreeing not to talk about the company or the breakup. Hall did not respond to multiple requests for interviews, but Hall did talk about Roemer and the company in court.

In court documents, Hall is quoted as saying that Roemer used company money to pay his own bills, country club fees and bar tab and nearly $100,000 worth of other items in addition to his salary. Hall said he was concerned about Roemer's "self-dealing" and that other things at Community Waste Disposal weren't all they should be.

In a deposition, Hall is asked by Roemer's attorney, "...Has anyone else, other than a lawyer that was representing you, told you that any conduct of anyone that is controlling Community Waste Disposal is illegal or wrongful?"

Hall: "I've heard things to that effect."

Attorney: "...From whom?"

Hall: "From people working at CWD or contracted by CWD."

The attorney asks Hall about time frames and then asks him to discuss what he was talking about.

Attorney: "Why don't you want to discuss them right now?"

Hall: "I don't know. I may be incriminating myself."

Attorney: "So is it your testimony, sir, that the conduct about which you--you or someone else has expressed concern is conduct that you engaged in as well?"

Hall: "Well, yeah, there's--there's things that Greg and I both have done, and there's things that the company has done that probably could be questionable...I became aware of it, you know, and I didn't step up and say, 'Stop.' You know, 'We got to stop.' So, therefore, I guess I probably became a part of it."

Hall did not go into any further detail, and Roemer declined to address the issue. In testimony later, Hall claimed Roemer routinely altered contracts in an attempt to deceive customers.

By the time Roemer came to the Dallas City Council in an effort to land the recycling contract, Community Waste Disposal claimed to be collecting 252,800 tons of refuse and 25,000 tons of recyclable material annually from cities around Dallas.

The company had $11.5 million in revenue in 1998, according to a report in Waste Age, a garbage industry magazine. Since then and since taking on the Dallas contract, the company reports revenues of $16.3 million with a net worth of $4.1 million.Currently, the company has contracts for garbage pickup or recycling with cities including Little Elm, Allen, Kaufman, Euless, Frisco, Pantego and Carrollton.Before he stopped responding to questions, Roemer agreed to sit down for an interview. Roemer's nicely appointed corner office in the well-secured building is upstairs and away from the garbage sorting bays. On a wall behind his desk, an abstract oil painting shows Muhammad Ali with his gloved fists raised. The smell of garbage permeates the building, Roemer's office included.

Roemer smiles frequently and talks about the Dallas contract in positive and enthusiastic terms. He comes across as a bit high-strung but charismatic. He talks about the successes his company had with recycling in Dallas and says tonnage is up substantially.

"We're collecting...somewhere between 7 1/2 and 8 pounds per home per month from Dallas now, and when we got the contract it was at about 4 1/2 to 5 pounds per month," he says, referring to the total number of households covered under the contract, not those actually recycling. "We got more tonnage from existing recyclers, and we got new people undoubtedly to join on."

But, he says, Community Waste Disposal is bound to make even more improvements in collections.

"We are always trying to think of ways to do better, and we want to do better," he says. "We're not stuck at 7 1/2 to 8 pounds. We can get more out of this city."


Recycling seemed like such a good idea a decade ago. Why toss out a perfectly good bottle? Think of all the trees that trashed newspaper wastes. Think of all the landfill space that could be saved if we just started reusing much of what we throw away.

That's why state lawmakers in the 1990s enacted legislation that set an ambitious suggested goal of recycling 40 percent of the waste stream by 1994. At the time, new federal regulations were putting the squeeze on smaller landfills that did not meet new stricter federal requirements. Fear about where all the garbage was going to end up was pervasive.

In Dallas, the city was ahead of the game, or at least it was ahead for Texas. In 1990, the city council authorized the first Dallas recycling program, a small voluntary effort. The benefits, according to a city council briefing, were "saving the existing landfill space and avoiding siting new facilities" and "avoiding landfill disposal of reusable materials."

The council heard that landfill space was at a premium and that their recycling efforts could help save that space.

"In Texas, there are approximately 750 landfills," part of the text from the briefing says. "In the last six years, almost 200 have closed. In the North Texas region, approximately one-third are considering closing down by October 1993 due to new federal regulations...By recycling 28 percent of the city's waste over the next 50 years based on 1990 tonnage, the city can add 14 years of life to the McCommas Bluff Landfill."

By the mid-1990s, the city fully launched a recycling effort. City crews collected the materials and then paid a processor to accept it. The city's program was never considered a very good one because too few residents participated and much of what was showing up at the curb was not usable by a recycler, Puckett says. By the late 1990s, it seemed logical to try to farm out the job to a company dedicated to recycling, she says.

"We were providing a recycling service and not getting much tonnage or participation. We'd gotten, I think, a little sloppy about letting customers put out just whatever they wanted," Puckett says. "They'd use different type bags. They couldn't tell trash from recycling.

"We needed to create a better standardized service so that what we pick up is recyclable and not trash."

The city asked for bids from private haulers, and Community Waste Disposal came in as the low bidder. It was a local company and one praised by nearby cities, Puckett says. Council members talked of the benefits of turning the effort over to a private contractor.

"Whether or not we privatize or continue to do what we're doing, the costs are there," Lois Finkelman, a council member and recycling advocate said at the time. "If indeed we make the decision that recycling is important, and I think that anyone that has children in school or grandchildren in school is only too aware of the fact that recycling has become a major focus and a major concern."

Puckett helped forward the argument for a better recycling program by telling the council that the city's existing effort was not working well and that the amount of garbage being diverted from the landfill amounted to "a drop in the bucket."

Though most faithful recyclers would wince to hear it, Puckett's metaphor applies to most city recycling programs. There are two relatively common misconceptions about the recycling business. One is that recycling is free because the company that picks up the material makes money from sales of the used goods. Not true. Recycling is an expensive proposition. In San Antonio it costs about $2.7 million a year; in Philadelphia it's $10 million; and in Dallas it's about $2.5 million. It's so expensive in New York City that the money-starved government there is talking about killing the whole $56 million program.

The other misconception about recycling is that most of what is picked up at the curb is recycled. In fact, a good percentage of the material ends up in landfills because it's not clean or there just isn't a market for it, those who have studied the recycling programs say.

"You have to make sure that you're overall saving resources and that things are actually getting recycled," says Angela Logomasini, director of risk and environmental policy at The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based think tank critical of government-mandated programs like recycling. "For instance, glass. Glass is not easy to recycle because it easily breaks and gets mixed in with other things, gets contaminated and then it's not marketable; it can't be used. And then you also have to think about what you're saving. Glass is made from sand. We don't have a sand shortage."

The city's contract requires that Community Waste Disposal file a quarterly report that says who bought the glass, paper and plastic collected in Dallas. But the cryptic report doesn't say how much from Dallas is sold to processors, and one of the companies that purportedly purchased the items would not comment on how much it bought or paid. A similarly vague report says Community Waste Disposal only throws out between about 5 percent and 7 percent of its garbage.

One former Community Waste Disposal employee said the company would routinely dump plastics like grocery sacks that no one would ever buy. The employee also said when the newspaper market dropped, it wasn't unusual for the company to take loads of newspapers to the DFW Landfill in Lewisville. The company just didn't have space to store newspapers while it waited for the market to come back, says the former employee, who also did not want to be identified.

Even without definite figures from Community Waste Disposal, studies of government-run programs show that typically upward of 40 percent of what a recycler picks up at the curb ends up in the garbage dump. Paper gets wet, recyclers get confused about what is acceptable, and glass gets broken. It's just human nature that everything isn't going to be clean and fit for recycling, Logomasini says.

"They say 40 percent that goes into the recycling center [gets trashed]; my guess is that it could be higher than that. From the research I've done, I've found that in a lot of cases, they just don't have markets," Logomasini says. "There may be periods of time where the market is really good for recyclables and then the market changes. You know, markets vary over time and then more goes into the landfill."

Logomasini, who has studied issues surrounding government-mandated recycling since 1991, says it is more realistic to figure that about 60 percent of the material retrieved at the curb on recycling day goes to the dump.

"I think the most exasperating part is that they take your garbage, they force you to sort and clean it, and then they take it to a landfill," she says.

It's now accepted that there's plenty of space at the nation's landfills.

"We do not have a shortage in most cases of landfill space," says Thea McManus, acting division director for the Municipal and Industrial Waste Division of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. "We thought we were years ago because we did this capacity report, and the trend just did not continue."

Sarah Voss, director of corporate communications for Waste Management Inc., the largest recycler in the United States, says she agrees with the argument that landfill space isn't what motivates recycling today.

"It's more because it's the right thing to do; people want to do it; that's probably more the argument," she says. "Basically what we tell people is it's something that our customers want. They want to recycle. They want to do that; they want to feel like they are giving back, so it's a service we provide to our customers."

In Dallas, the city's 2,000-acre McCommas Bluff Landfill site is designed to last about 40 more years, with or without recycling. The city is considering a $46 million bond package that, if approved, would build a levee to increase the site's useful size.

The idea that municipal landfills are dangerous is another myth, both McManus and Logomasini say. Most material deposited into a municipal landfill is not hazardous. Landfills are not only strictly regulated and monitored, they end up being so dry that the material is practically "mummified," Logomasini says.

Without the landfill-saving argument, what then is the justification for paying companies such as Community Waste Disposal millions to recycle? For one thing, it keeps the companies in business, government officials say. Puckett and McManus say there is value in jobs created and energy saved, an argument reiterated by environmental groups that favor recycling.

"There's all these other reasons that we absolutely promote recycling...We want you to think about recycling and source reduction before you generate the garbage and put it in the landfill," McManus says. "They have to do with economics, job creation, future generation. I mean, there's a whole bunch of other upstream benefits."

Logomasini strongly disagrees that government programs add jobs that wouldn't crop up through free market forces anyway. Private programs that aren't charged to the public do a better job of economically extracting useful resources from the waste stream, while government-mandated programs such as the one in Dallas do little more than make the well-educated and affluent feel as though they've done something for the environment at a typically high cost, she says.

"It comes down to the fact that people feel good about basically bonding with their trash. It's nice that people want to do something good for the environment. Unfortunately, the sentiment is being directed in the wrong place," she says.


Dallas resident Joanne Hill, an avid recycler and city government watchdog, is not impressed with the city's recycling effort either and takes issue with the city's expensive recycling failures.

One of those failed efforts is at McCommas Bluff, where garbage trucks one after another climb a mountain built on waste and disappear into dusty clouds. Hill stands inside an open-air building that cost the city about $250,000 in grant money to erect a few years ago. It was supposed to be used to sort out usable materials that might otherwise have been sent to the landfill. But it wasn't designed properly, and so it was never used. The city has told Hill that the building will be used eventually, perhaps when the market for recyclable materials goes up.

The same thing happened in North Dallas across the street from Bachman Transfer Station where the city put up an outdoor loading dock for recycling. Fifteen years ago, when it became apparent that the city wasn't going to use the loading dock for recycling after all, Hill initiated her own effort at the dock, called Dry Gulch.

"People drop off mattresses and furniture and all kinds of things, and anything that can be reused, people are free to pick it up here," she says.

Hill believes in this recycling center, and she believes in recycling. Working without pay, she has pulled about 50 tons a month from the waste stream for the past 15 years, or about 9,000 tons total. She sells the things she collects to recycling processors, and when markets are good the center can turn a small profit. Those working off court-ordered community service hours do the sorting at Hill's center.

She says the program is not a moneymaker, but the things that are voluntarily dropped off are really recycled--at no cost to the city. Even those who pay the city for Community Waste Disposal's services frequent Hill's independent center, she says.

"They know we're going to recycle it," she says. "Does anybody really trust the city of Dallas?"

Logomasini says private efforts like Hill's make more economic and environmental sense.

"If recycling is saving you money, that's an indicator it's probably saving you energy and other resources, and there is a lot of recycling that occurs naturally in a regular marketplace," she says. "There's a certain percentage that's always efficient, and it always occurs in the marketplace. Aluminum is always the primary example. There's always markets for aluminum."

Puckett still believes in the city's program. Any space saved at the landfill is better than none, she says. When she is told of what seem to be discrepancies in Community Waste Disposal records, she says that the explanation could be innocent errors. The trip over the scales by driver Israel Esparza back in January, she says, might just be a "double swipe" or accidental double credit by the scale computer that the company erroneously reported.

"It's a double swipe, it looks like...This happens occasionally in our business that it can happen where they swipe it and they don't think it's taken it," she says, examining copies of the scale tickets. "I could see that there could be errors in double swipes and driving on and off the scale that you could get that much errors in the scale. If I saw many of these, I would be checking a number of different things."

Reviewing the company's records, the Observer found more than a dozen instances of suspect scale tickets in a single month.

Puckett says she doesn't know why a driver would have written in a time on the log sheet that spaced his loads out by a couple of hours, and she hasn't examined the company's records to know how many other double swipes there might be. While errors may have occurred in other areas of Community Waste Disposal's operation, and even if participation is still relatively low, it's no reason to give up on Community Waste Disposal or the recycling program, she says.

"Am I worried? No. Am I curious? A little. If in fact the numbers are off by 10 percent...I'd be curious. I'm not alarmed," she says. "I don't think that there is a fatal flaw here. I think there is improvement we can make."

Dallas Observer editorial assistant Michelle Martinez contributed to this report.

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