Recycling: From Blue Bins to Uncertainty

Part One of a Four-Part Spotlight DC Investigation

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Residents line up to deposit recyclables and/or trash on a recent Saturday afternoon at the Fort Totten Solid Waste Transfer Station. Photo: Mark R. Smith

“There is no such thing as ‘away.’ So, when we throw anything away, it must go somewhere.”
― Annie Leonard, Executive Director Greenpeace USA 

Melinda, a resident of Northwest, considers herself a conscientious environmental citizen. Like many of her neighbors, she is troubled by climate change and the manner in which mankind has damaged the Earth. She wants to do her part to right that wrong by conscientiously recycling. Separating and placing her bottles, cans, paper and cardboard items into one of those ubiquitous blue bins that dot the city’s landscape seems like an easy way to help save the planet.

However, the waste that Melinda and thousands of fellow District residents place in their bins every week with the best intentions might not be getting recycled. Funded by Spotlight DC, this four-part investigation of recycling will demonstrate how the District has failed to meet its own stated recycling objectives by sending items sorted by residents for recycling to landfills or incinerators.

While much of what the city says is slated to be recycled has not ended up sorted and sold on what today is a healthy open market, guidance is offered on the website of the Department of Public Works (DPW).

One of the worst issues faced at a recycling facility, such as this WM location, concerns contaminants – most notably plastic bags – getting tangled in the equipment. Photo: Mark R. Smith

Recycling Guidelines: The Reality
The top link that’s highlighted in blue on that page is called The Mayor’s List of Recyclables and Compostables, which is better known as simply “The Mayor’s List.” It is available at https://dpw.dc.gov/recyclingcompostlist.

Technically, all private residences and business are required to recycle as the list dictates. It contains a detailed list of what items are acceptable and which are not. The basic rundown is as follows:

  • Paper and cardboard, with a wide range of products eligible: They include corrugated (but unwaxed) cardboard; publications including newspapers, magazines and soft-cover books; paper bags, various office stationary and envelopes; and shredded paper.
  • Rigid plastic containers: beverage bottles, food containers, tubs and lids and produce containers.
  • Aluminum and steel packaging: aerosol cans, aluminum foil and pie pans and food and beverage containers.
  • Glass bottles and jars

Glass is accepted in blue bins, but goes to what’s called alternative daily cover at landfills. It isn’t recycled, since it is low-quality when collected in a single-stream system and because there are no glass recyclers in the mid-Atlantic.

There are two ways in which the Mayor’s List informs the citizenry and businesses what’s desired: material type and packaging format. “It’s the simplest way to explain to the average person what’s expected to be recycled,” said Charlotte Dreizen, a former DPW employee who now works as sustainability manager for a trade association in the city.

The Mayor’s List is to be reviewed for possible updating at least every two years given evolving market conditions, with the most recent changes made in February 2021. “If anything placed with recycled items is deviant from what’s on the list,” Dreizen said, “the household or business is technically not in compliance.”

Although the Benning Road Solid Waste Transfer Station has been shuttered since mid-2021, residents can still drop off shredding on one Saturday per month; and gas, paint and other household hazardous waste chemicals on the other Saturdays. Photo: Mark R. Smith

Compliance is big part of this issue and while the DPW has not collected as many recyclable items as intended in the blue bins, the Bowser administration is still attempting to go big to hit a diversion goal that more than a few insiders think it won’t be able to reach.

ZeroWasteDC: The Dream
With a June Democratic Primary looming, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration is talking up its eventual waste diversion goals of 80 percent by 2032 via its Sustainable DC 2.0. The zero waste concept the mayor is touting is based on a set of principles that encourage the redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused. The goal is for no trash to be sent to landfillsincinerators or dumped in the ocean.

The ZeroWasteDC plan targets waste diversion by increasing organics diversion, improving the District’s now $11.1 million recycling program and promoting reuse and waste reduction. On its website, while acknowledging that there will be some materials that are not recoverable and will be sent to landfills or waste-to-energy facilities (incinerators), the ZeroWasteDC goal of 80 percent seems like a pie-in-the-sky figure, especially given that the District’s number currently generally hovers around 16 percent citywide, according to the Department of Public Works’ (DPW) own studies.

The ZeroWasteDC dictum means 80 percent would be sent anywhere for higher or better use than a landfill or an incinerator, Dreizen points out. “I don’t think anyone realistically thinks that goal is possible.”

While the new facilities will be a boost for the city, there’s a legal side at play, too. “Few places have ever reached such heights without innovative laws,” Dreizen said, noting that Belgium and Germany have been able to do so because “those countries require manufacturers to pay for recycling. Their citizens don’t pay and the cost is picked up by the companies that produce the packaging.”

Dreizen, who is known for her frequent recycling advice via Twitter and who often answers questions as to what items are recyclable, said that the ZeroWaste Omnibus Amendment Act of 2020, introduced by Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh (D) the year prior, represents “a great opportunity” for getting a solid program foundation in place. “It’s not best in class, but it’s a down payment on a commercial waste management program to properly recycle food waste and for glass.”

A glance under the reports category on the DPW’s ZeroWasteDC web page gives District citizens access to Waste Characterization Studies from 2021, which Dreizen called an “intrepid effort to figure out what’s being generated in the city by who and how much gets recycled.” The next most recent entry, the Desktop Waste Characterization Study for the District of Columbia, is dated 2017-18. The other entries are from 2018 or much earlier, with one item dating back to 2002.

A key number from the perspective of the DPW concerns the number of homes it serves every week, which exceeds 100,000 single-family and multi-family dwellings of three units or less.

Recycling: The Practice
The DPW serves roughly 105,000 residences and collects roughly 10 percent of the city’s recycling stream through the efforts of 80 workers who move around the District in 24 trucks that are based out of yards on W Street NE (off Rhode Island Avenue) and at Lot 8 in the RFK Stadium parking lot.

Historically, the public service has collected from 30,000-40,000 tons per year of single-stream (mixed) recyclables. There are approximately 116 recycling routes throughout the city and at the end of their routes, these days they all head to the same place: Fort Totten, which is the only transfer station in the city that’s in normal operation.

The private system serves the owners of large apartment buildings, as well commercial properties. Landlords, community associations and business owners are required by the city to provide recycling services through commercial solid waste collectors, which are often the industry’s heavyweights like WM and Republic Services (which recently purchased Tenleytown Trash), as well as some smaller private concerns. More than 100 haulers collect, haul and manage nearly 90 percent of the city’s 1.13 million tons of waste.

Neil Seldman, director, Waste to Wealth Initiative with the Washington-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, is among the observers who is impressed with that first part of the operation in the District. “DC has an excellent record of picking up materials for recycling, as well as breakdown. I compare it favorably to any city in the country, as far as efficiency goes. The DPW are very good at that part of what they do.

“But as for the next phase,” said Seldman, “the system is broken because of the lack of processing capacity for waste at the two DC transfer stations, one of which (Benning Road) was recently condemned. The reason is disinvestment. The city never invested in rudimentary maintenance.”

The recyclables that are picked up by the DPW’s trucks are taken to Fort Totten, unloaded and immediately transferred into a third-party transporter. The transporter uses its long-haul trailers to deliver the recyclables directly to the WM’s 37,000-square-foot Recycle America facility in Elkridge, Md., which is DC’s currently contracted materials recovery facility (known as a MRF or “murph.” Republic’s MRF in Manassas, Va., serves as a back-up MRF for the city).

Upon arrival in Elkridge, the cargo is weighed, then dumped on the tipping floor before proceeding to a conveyor belt. The next stop is the presort area, where a variety of items ― which can be anything from dirty diapers to patio furniture to soccer balls, golf balls and bowling balls (and that’s just a very short list) ― are removed, as are the unfortunately ubiquitous plastic grocery bags that are errantly filled with recyclables.

The items then proceed along conveyor belts through sorting equipment and various separators for cardboard, paper and aluminum. The facility, which employs 170 workers (including more than 80 sorters) on two shifts, opened in 2006 and operates with older equipment that in some cases has been upgraded.

Mike Taylor, WM area recycling operations director, said the single-stream approach means customers don’t need to separate items, which saves money on transport and handling and hopefully make it easier for the public to recycle. He added that the contamination rate at the facility is “about 15 percent, which is down about five percent from the level of recent years.”

From that point, recyclable materials are baled, sold in the commodity market and shipped to manufacturers who get to the main point of turning the final product into new items, with contaminants sent to the Wheelabrator Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Co. (BRESCO) plant in Baltimore for incineration.

Contaminated and inappropriate items from the WM recycling facility, in Elkridge, Md., are sent to Baltimore’s well-known BRESCO trash incinerator, which is a dominant presence to motorists when they enter the city via Russell Street. Photo: Mark R. Smith

Will that still be the case when the new Benning Road facility comes on line? Construction is due to begin within a year.

“When any new facility comes online, that could change the dynamic of the regional marketplace,” said Blake Adams, manager of the DPW’s Office of Waste Diversion. “We think that the investments the city is making in our facilities and the work that we’re doing to educate the public on recycling behaviors will allow us to reach our zero waste goals.

However, that “will ultimately require two things,” said Adams. “Strong policy and planning and the infrastructure to support new programs.”

Next Up
The Hill Rag’s four-part series about recycling efforts in the District will continue with the second installment next month, which will be an examination of the city’s public recycling system for single family and small multi-unit dwellings. It will delve into what happens to that plastic bottle that Melinda just tossed into her blue bin, where it’s dropped off and its final destination. It will query public officials about their role in managing the system and delve into how their efforts live up to the rhetoric.

In May, the third report will focus on what happens when city residents who live in apartments and condos, as well as businesses, toss those plastic bottles into their recycle bins and where haulers large and small take it for processing and the end of its journey.

The final installment in the series, set for June, will look to the future. What best practices are being used around the region, the U.S. and world and how can the city leverage what it knows and turn it into practical improvements for the local efforts? Might legislative action imminent assist in reforming or even reinventing recycling as we know it now?

Mark R. Smith is a freelance writer based in Odenton, Md. He writes for The Business Monthly, in Columbia, Md., where he also served as editor-in-chief for almost 15 years; earlier, he spent 16 years contributing to The Daily Record, in Baltimore. He has also recently worked for Expansion Solutions, the Georgetown University Law Center and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, as well as many other publications during the past three decades.

This article was supported by a grant from the Spotlight DC: Capitol City Fund for Investigative Journalism. Spotlight DC encourages the submission for proposals by independent journalists. For more information, visit www.spotlightdc.org.

This stoy has been updated.