Denver Building Owners Brace For New Recycling, Compost Rules
A new initiative in Denver requires building owners to provide recycling and composting for their tenants, offering residents of the eco-conscious city an easier path to disposing of their waste, but causing headaches for landlords that have to incorporate new processes into their properties.
Initiated Ordinance 306, also called the Waste No More Initiative, represents a shift for the city and county of Denver. What might sound like a simple change on the surface is actually quite complicated, local CRE experts say, especially for owners of older buildings or those located in tight quarters downtown, and implementation will be complex.
“Every building is as unique as every individual person,” Denver Building Owners and Managers Association Executive Vice President Stephen Shepard said. “The footprint of the building is the footprint of the building. Especially downtown, it's not like that a lot of these older buildings can add on something in order to accommodate these extra bins.”
The ordinance affects a wide range of buildings and businesses, with most forms of commercial real estate impacted in some way. Large residential buildings will be required to offer both recycling and composting services. Nonresidential buildings will only be required to offer recycling, with a major exception: If they qualify as a “food waste producer” under the ordinance, they must also collect compost. That category is defined in a sprawling, 18-item list that goes well beyond restaurants to include grocery stores and golf courses, hotels and hospitals, office buildings and college campuses (if they offer dining services) and even sports facilities and airports.
Commercial sources — as defined to include the broad range of commercial, industrial, institutional and large residential players whose waste isn’t collected by the city, as well as construction sites — generate 82% of Denver’s waste, according to city data. Until now, those operators have been allowed to design their own waste programs, with less-than-stellar results: About 63% of Denver’s commercial waste ends up in the landfill. By mandating new collection policies, Ordinance 306 aims to shrink that footprint.
Shepard said he felt the organizers behind Ordinance 306 had their hearts in the right place. But he also feared the new rules weren’t quite in step with the reality on the ground, pointing out there may not be infrastructure in place to adequately handle the sudden addition of alternative waste streams, exacerbating bottlenecks that already exist.
“I have members right now that can't find vendors for composting,” he said. “They're trying to compost at their building, or have been, and now — I think there's only one hauler right now that's doing composting.”
But the collection and hauling are only one part of the battle. Any waste reduction effort, Shepard said, ultimately depends on people to do the right thing, and that will require education. To meet environmental goals, Denverites impacted by the ordinance have to sort things in the right bins. The ordinance does require building owners and operators to supply instructions in both English and Spanish, while budgeting money for a marketing firm to build awareness. Still, Shepard wonders if those modest efforts will be enough.
“There’s this sense that commercial buildings should be able to handle this, as well as multifamily, when in reality it's the tenants that have to do things in the right way, he said. “That education piece is a much larger component that I think people in the general public understand it to be.”
Tobias Strohe, partner at Denver-based architecture and design firm JNS, said the ordinance will put the most strain on existing buildings from earlier eras, designed with different tenant needs in mind.
But the ordinance has hardship clauses for buildings in especially tricky situations vis-a-vis waste management, Strohe said. And for new construction, the new rules will lead to straightforward future design choices — though simply adding a third disposal chute for compost may not cut it.
“If you're taking coffee grounds, or tea leaves, or whatever, and you're dumping that down a chute, that can be a pretty messy affair,” he says. “That's why I think there's a chance that it's going to trend more towards adding compost bins on a per-floor basis, you know, inside the room for people to dispose — which adds a little bit of a service component.”
In an interview with Bisnow, Ean Thomas Tafoya, an environmental activist and Denver mayoral candidate who helped lead the Waste No More ballot campaign, said the measure, which passed with nearly 71% support, was in part about increasing access to services many residents want. Denverites who live in large apartment buildings are at the mercy of landlords that have historically had the final say in whether recycling or compost services will be offered. But the measure is also about making commercial operators accountable to someone other than themselves.
“The city and county of Denver is now requiring three streams from every household,” Tafoya says, referring to new rules taking effect for Denver residents Jan. 1. “And there are many people saying, ‘Well, what about the business sector?’ They account for such a vast discrepancy in the amount of waste, and they need to be acting, too.”
Many of the largest entities will have until June 1, 2023, to comply. That’s the date, for instance, that applies to operators of nonresidential premises larger than 25K SF and residential buildings between 25 and 75 units. Smaller buildings will then be phased in gradually over the following two years. Construction and demolition sites with city permits also have until June 1 to begin to separate and recycle all “readily recyclable” concrete, asphalt, clean wood, scrap metal and corrugated cardboard.
But for one type of property — residential buildings with more than 75 units — the rules are technically enforceable already, even though the ordinance intended to give them a grace period, too. According to the ordinance, these operators only had until June 1, 2022, a deadline that passed more than five months before Election Day, to get their ducks in a row.
That unwieldy timeline is due to a quirk in the way Ordinance 306 reached the ballot, according to Grace Rink, executive director of Denver’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency. The Waste No More Initiative was originally planned for the 2021 ballot, but didn’t receive enough signatures that year. When it finally did make the cut in 2022, the original language wasn’t changed, forcing residents of larger residential buildings into compliance retroactively.
What does enforcement in this case look like, given that it’s retroactive? That’s a question the city wants to be able to answer almost immediately.
“No matter what, we have to be prepared for when the public makes a complaint and has an expectation that the city will enforce this,” Rink said. “That’s where we're focusing our efforts. What does enforcement look like right now, which is different than what it might look like in say, six months or a year when there's more infrastructure ready to go.”
Meanwhile, the city isn’t quite ready to assess the compliance it now technically requires. Going forward, building operators will need to file their waste management plans using a form created by the Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, but that form does not yet exist. As a result, even buildings that already collect compost and recycling don’t yet have a way to follow the documentation aspect of the rules.
“One of our responsibilities is to come up with that form,” Rink said. “What questions are we going to be asking? What constitutes a recycling plan? It’s our responsibility to figure that out.”
Despite the initial complexities, Strohe seemed to feel the ordinance was ultimately a positive step for Denver.
“If something's new and different, there’s always an ‘uh oh, I don't know,’ kind of reaction, right? You can very easily say it’s going to cost more,” he said. “But from a design standpoint, we need to pay attention to these things and figure out how to best do it. Nothing's ever free when you try to improve or change things.”