Are Curbside Recyclables Actually Recycled?

Part Two of a Four-Part Spotlight DC Investigation

237
Photo: Liz O'Gorek

Before dawn, the concrete tipping floor at Fort Totten Transfer Station in Northeast DC is quiet, and mostly cleared. It is basically an empty shed that serves as the landing spot for the District’s daily recyclables. A little before 6 a.m. private haulers start to check in at the weigh station and dump their hauls. Thus begins an ersatz vehicular parade that runs well into the mid-afternoon. The DC Dept. of Public Works (DPW) recycling trucks join the line later in the morning, checking in at the weigh station first before dumping their loads on the tipping floor.

It’s a busy, crowded and loud scene, with a cacophony of engines and hydraulics punctuated by the grunts of aging forklifts and big-clawed grapplers. DPW staff manages the traffic, processing the evolving pile of recyclables into a semblance of order.

Which brings us to Melinda.

Readers may recall that Melinda, a resident of Northwest, from last month’s installment, enjoys a soda or two. As a conscientious steward of the environment, she places her empty plastic bottles, along with her cardboard and paper products, in her DPW-provided blue bin.

Despite DPW warnings about the harm plastic bags do to recycling equipment, many people still put their recyclables in them. People are also required to flatten cardboard boxes to better fit them into the blue bins. Lack of public cooperation often results in scenes such as this. As for the contents of the bag, those recyclables will probably get flung in the regular trash. Photo: Andrew Lightman

Melinda knows her bottles will end up on that very tipping floor after pickup by a DPW recycling truck. Since plastic bottles are considered especially clean recyclables, she is confident hers will be recycled into another bottle or may be used to make a park bench, clothing, furniture, containers or myriad other products.

But will this happen? How much of what is deposited in blue bins is actually recycled? This investigation has found that despite the city’s commitment to a world of Zero Waste, actual residential recycling of trash has fallen.

This article is the second in a Spotlight series on DC recycling. It investigates the fate of recyclables collected by DPW at the curbside, examining their complicated journey from blue bins to reuse.

Curbside Pickup
Drive through the District on trash pickup day. The curbside is dotted with those ubiquitous blue recycling bins, which the DC government provides to 105,000 single-family dwellings and multi-family buildings containing three or fewer units. Homeowners like Melinda deposit their recyclables in these containers and carry the bins to curbside.

DPW employs 80 workers and 24 trucks based at W Street NE and Lot 8 of RFK Stadium, to collect recycles deposited in these blue bins. They run 115 routes throughout the District.

“Their (DPW’s) workers are very good at picking up and moving the recycled products. In recent years, they’ve also worked on trying to limit the contamination in what they pick up and take to Fort Totten,” said Chris Weiss, executive director of the Washington-based DC Environmental Network. “So there are good things to say on that front.”

DPW trucks haul approximately 30,000 to 40,000 tons per annum, which constitutes 10 percent of the city’s single-stream (mixed) recyclables. They deliver their loads to the Fort Totten Transfer Station, located on Bates Road NE.

Tipping The Recyclables
After all of the recycle trucks “tip” their loads at Fort Totten, DPW employees conduct a visual inspection. “It’s not 100 percent scientific, but the workers get a good idea of what looks bad, especially with the crazy stuff that ends up getting tipped, including cinder blocks, plastic window blinds,” etc., said Charlotte Dreizen, a former program analyst with DPW’s Office of Waste Diversion and now a sustainability manager for a DC-based trade association.

The crews either accept or reject the pile on the tipping room floor. If the load is acceptable, the crew transfers the recyclables into a larger, privately-owned long-haul truck for a 24-mile journey north on Route 95 to a processing facility owned by Waste Management (WM) in Elkridge, MD.

“For any given load (of recyclables on the tipping room floor) that has more than 20 percent contamination, the entirety of that load will be moved to the trash pile, as recycling facilities can’t handle an infinite amount of contamination.” said Dreizen. All trash is later placed on another DPW truck for a trip to either one of the city’s landfills or the Covanta waste-to-energy plant (incinerator) on Furnace Road, in Lorton, VA.

“Typically, they (DPW employees) see loads that are pretty good, though there are no official agency numbers,” Dreizen said. “A couple of times a day if a load of recycling comes in at 50 percent contamination, the contract with WM dictates that WM can reject it. So rather than taking it to Elkridge and wasting money on time and gas, plus polluting the air with the truck’s emissions, they just throw it in the trash.”

After it’s bailed, recycled product at WM is loaded onto trucks and sold on the open market. Photo: Mark R. Smith

To that point, Neil Seldman, director of the Waste to Wealth Initiative for the Washington-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) estimates that 20 percent of recyclable loads tipped out on to the floor at Fort Totten are found to be contaminated.

DPW was unable to confirm Seldman’s and Dreizen’s statements. However, statistics of recycling can be gleaned from the DC Council’s Committee on Transportation & Environment’s Oversight Committee’s DPW hearings: In particular, the agency reported the recycling diversion rate for DPW residential collection for the past four fiscal years. The rates were:

  • FY 18 – 25.24%
  • FY 19 — 25.1%
  • FY 20 – 25.0%
  • FY 21 – 23.9%

The recycling diversion rate is defined as the weight of diverted waste (recyclables) divided by the weight of all waste then multiplied by 100. So, over the last four fiscal years the diversion rate for residential trash pickup has fallen 1.34 percent. Not a positive trend. (https://zerowaste.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/zerowaste/CY%2018%20Diversion%20Report%20Final%203%2010%2021.pdf).

DPW has not published an Annual Waste Diversion Report since 2018 (see the adjacent table). In that year, DPW collected 140,987.45 tons of solid waste from the curbside and at community drop-off locations. The largest portion of this, 18.79 percent, were “single stream recyclables.” Single-stream recycling is a system wherein recyclables, including newspaper, cardboard, plastic, aluminum, etc., are placed in a single bin for pickup by a truck to be sorted later.

At the time of its most recent DC Council performance hearing, the agency testified that 2021 Diversion Report had been completed, but not been released. The report had not been published at the time this article was written. At a late March 2022 roundtable presided over by Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh (D), Seldman and other veterans of the DC recycling industry all expressed frustrated by the DPW’s lack of transparency when dealing with the community.

The national average recycling diversion rate is somewhere between 32 and 35 percent, stated Seldman. “A strong figure would be about 45 percent, he added. Cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland (Ore.) and Bethlehem (NY) “are all at or above 70 percent. Any city that is doing well is at or above 40 percent,” Seldman pointed out.

So, what happens to the recyclables deemed sufficiently uncontaminated enough to process at Elkridge?

Processing Recyclables
At WM’s facility in Elkridge, the materials are weighed, dumped on WM’s own tipping floor, where they are evaluated again for contamination. Those that are accepted are moved to a conveyor belt. Line workers shuffle through the items in the facility’s pre-sort area. They remove everything not recyclable such as dirty diapers or soccer balls. Most importantly, they toss out those ubiquitous plastic grocery bags along with their contents. DC’s recyclables are then comingled with those of other jurisdictions. Recyclables at Elkridge are made up of: 40% – plastic, glass, aluminum cans and bimetal cans; 35% – corrugated cardboard ; 25% – other paper products.

After sorting the recyclables with its various machinery, WM bails the materials to sell as a commodity at market price. “One day, it may be purchased by a company in North Carolina, another day by a company in the Midwest,” said Dreizen, “and still another day by one of WM’s international clients. It depends on the market and quantities.”

Twice a year DPW and WM cooperate to measure percentages of glass, paper, cardboard and contamination in DC’s recyclable stream, Dreizen said. “It’s usually a couple of people who make the trip from DPW to see the material that it is managing.”

While the DC recycling rate stands at about 20 percent for cans, bottles, cardboard and paper products off to the trash pile, according to the DPW and to ILSR, “the amount of material in the general waste stream is much more than that,” he said. “Many plastic soda bottles, for instance, are in the regular trash, which is why DC has a very low recycling rate compared to other cities.”

For its part in this equation, there has been much turnover in recent years at the top spot at the DPW, which some observers point out as part of the issue.

A request by Hill Rag to interview current DPW Solid Waste Management Administrator Valentina Ukwuoma, who oversees recycling, was declined. Blake Adams, manager of the DPW’s Office of Waste Diversion, did respond to an interview request, after DPW public affairs initially answered most questions regarding this article via email.

All of DPW recycling residential efforts will remain ineffective, however, if the public does not understand what to and what not to deposit in the agency’s blue bins.

Public Ignorance
Though the posted rate is 20 percent, “I estimate that about 50 percent of the cans, bottles and paper products in the trash stream are recyclable,” said Seldman, but do not end up in the blue bins “due to the lack of recycling culture and incentives in the District.”

“The DPW is trying to get people to recycle better, by providing feedback to households about what not to recycle and to not put their recyclables in plastic bags,” said Seldman, “but what they are not doing is expanding the number of households that recycle.”

“Nor are they doing three things they need to do,” he said. “Raise public awareness efforts with bus and train ads, flyers, newspaper ads, etc.; start a school education program with recycling-based curricula and industry internships for high school and junior college students; and create incentives to recycle, like unit pricing for garbage collection which is used in thousands of US cities. That can increase recycling by about 40 percent.”

Wish Cycling
Whatever the numbers, there is one major issue that stems from the general public’s need for more information, communication and education. That’s dealing with contamination and its ugly neighbor, “wish cycling.”

“There is much ‘wish cycling,’ going on, which occurs when the public ― through lack of instruction/education or indifference ― throws out Christmas lights, aerosol cans, dirty diapers, small (or large) appliances, etc., said David Biderman, executive director for the Silver Spring-based Solid Waste Association of North America.

“People are generally not good recyclers and there are fires in facilities every day due to propane tanks and lithium batteries being tossed into the blue bins. And plastic bags,” Biderman said, “are a MRF’s (a materials recovery facility or “murph”) number one enemy. MRFs have to shut down several times a day to pull the plastic bags out of the recycling equipment.”

It’s a key aspect of the process that the public needs a better understanding of. “I don’t want to call out the public, but I think the local governments and solid waste companies can do a better job of training the general populace about what’s recyclable and what’s not,” he said. “The numbers are improving, but we have ways to go.”

Seldman concurred. “We need heightened educational efforts by the District and the companies involved to educate the public,” he said. “Know that the greater the contamination, the more expensive recycling is for the city.”

What generally happens today is that the workers who pick up the recyclables can put a sticker on items and plastic bags that are not recyclable. “The next option is to simply not pick up the loads and let them pile up,” he said. “People get the message.”

The biggest reason to get recycling done right is to keep as much rejected material as possible away from landfills and incineration.

“We don’t want [anyone] to send any trash to incineration,” said Weiss. “There are a million reasons to not do that and it’s what the entire world is struggling to move away from. We are also trying to move away from landfills; there are many problems there, too. We want a system in DC that motivates residents to recycle the waste.”

This four-part Spotlight investigation on District recycling continues in May. The third installment investigates the much larger world of commercial recycling. Where does it actually go? How much of it is properly disposed of?

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 is the second in an investigation on DC recycling 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.
________________________________________________________

WHAT NOT TO RECYCLE
What does not go in your blue recycling bin?

  • Recyclables in plastic bags
  • Plastic bags, period (take them to your local grocer)
  • Plastic film
  • Plastic wrap
  • Batteries and electronics
  • Clothing and shoes
  • Food waste
  • Food-soiled plastic/paper containers
  • Glass
  • Paint and other household hazardous wastes
  • Plastic window blinds
  • Scrap metal, wood and furniture
  • Styrofoam
  • “Tanglers,” like hoses, wires, cords and holiday lights
  • Textiles, clothing and linens
  • Wet cardboard/paper
  • Yard waste, wood, flowers

At http://zerowaste.dc.gov, users can type the name of an item into a search bar and see if it can or cannot be accepted.