Trashed: The Challenges of Apartment Recycling

Why Does So Much Of It End Up in Landfill?

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Under her Zero Waste Initiative, Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) has publicly committed to diverting 80 percent of the District’s waste from incinerators and landfills by 2032. In December of 2020, she signed the Zero Wast Omnibus Act, which directs the city to reduce the contamination of recyclables to attain that lofty goal.

In 2018, District multi-unit, residential dwellings generated approximately 24,470 tons of recycling, roughly twice as much recycling as the single-family households directly serviced by the DC Department of Public Works (DPW). That number is projected to rise 54 percent to 33,422 tons in 2038. DPW estimates only 13 percent of potential recyclables in such buildings are successfully recycled, according to the agency’s 2021 Desktop Waste Character Study.

Many residents of these buildings are good environmental stewards, carefully segregating plastics, paper and metals from their trash for recycling. Yet, these sincere efforts are largely doomed to failure by a flawed, unaccountable, waste hauling system regulated by an agency asleep at the switch.

This third installment of a Spotlight DC-funded investigation of recycling reveals that the District government pays little or no attention to large, multi-unit dwellings’ compliance with recycling regulations. It also does not audit the operations of the private commercial haulers servicing these apartments, which function as recycling gatekeepers, choosing whether loads are headed to landfill or to a Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) for processing.

Velocity Assistant General Manager Michael Hunt and his colleagues do their part to keep the recycling bins clean by consistently checking for contamination.

Unless the District regulates and audits recycling operations at large apartment buildings and polices the operations of their private haulers, Zero Waste will likely remain a pipe dream.

The story begins with case studies of the recycling efforts in two distinctly different large residential buildings. First up is The Velocity, a modern condominium in Capitol Riverfront, built with recycling in mind. The second, Town Square Towers, is an older structure in Southwest dating from the late 1960s, before the practice was commonplace. The inquiry then follows the trajectory of recyclables as they travel from these two sources to either being successfully processed or ending up burned in an incinerator or buried in a landfill.

Built to Recycle
Velocity Condominium General Manager Bryan Burke and Assistant Manager Michael Hunt are well acquainted with the challenges of recycling. They work hard to ready “clean recycling” for pickup at their 200-unit building. Completed in 2009, the Velocity was designed with two serrated chutes: one for trash and the other for recyclables. Residents deposit loose recyclables in the appropriate chute on each floor, leading to a dumpster in the trash room.

If a particular dumpster is contaminated by soiled pizza boxes, residue-lined peanut butter jars or perhaps the prime offender, the plastic bags that threaten to clog sorting machines at the MRFs (pronounced “murphs”), the entire load is considered “dirty” and is routed to a landfill or the incinerator.

Glass requires special handling. Velocity provides a separate bin in every trash room to avoid glass contaminating the recyclable carts. Glass, while on DC’s official recycling list, is not processed by the building’s recycling contractor and therefore must be segregated and picked up separately.

The recycling collects in large carts in Velocity’s trash room at the bottom of the recycling chute. The building’s 435 residents collectively generate six weekly cartloads, each containing roughly two cubic yards of material. Their contents are collected thrice weekly by kmG, Velocity’s Potomac Falls-based recycling hauler.

Burke and Hunt focus on getting the cleanest loads to their hauler. Mondays are the “toughest” recycling days, said Burke, because staff has to sort through the weekend’s detritus.

Recycled cardboard is very valuable in today’s market — so much so that management at Velocity would like to find a way to make and keep the money it generates.

Velocity’s managers make every effort to educate residents. They have mounted signs in the trash rooms on each of the building’s 14 floors in English and Spanish. Among other cumbersome items, they warn against the perils of chucking pizza boxes that clog the chute. There is a labeled recycling bin in the mail room. But the key to the building’s recycling success, they say, is the behavior of Velocity residents.

“Most are doing a good job with it and that does make our jobs easier,” said Hunt, “but in any group of this size, there are always a number of [residents] who simply don’t [follow the rules].”

Consistent staffing in another key to Velocity’s effort. “Our three cleaning employees have all been here for several years,” Hunt said, “and they know what to look for and correct.”

Velocity residents play an important role in keeping a focus on proper recycling and educating their neighbors to achieve the best results. “Yes, people do get busted,” Hunt reported with a smile, adding that there is “good communication” among them about doing it right the next time.

All told, Burke and Hunt are content with both their residents and kmG. The extra money the building pays each month for recycling is worth it, in their estimation.

kmG Hauling, the trash/recycling contractor for Velocity, makes very clear to the building’s residents which products are recyclable and which are not. Note kmG’s refusal to accept pizza boxes, even though they are made of valuable cardboard — since they are often contaminated.

Velocity has an annual budget for waste removal of about $21,000. That breaks down to $1,750 per month, about $250 of which is for the separate recycling pickup. There are two other rental apartment buildings immediately adjacent. If they pay their recycling haulers the same rate, that block would yield about $60,000 per year. To expand this hypothetical, the 12 blocks bounded by I Street and M Street SE and New Jersey Avenue and South Capitol Street, would generate roughly $750,000 annually.

One thing is for sure, there is plenty of money to be made in waste removal, mostly for trash, and more on the recycling side.

A Legacy Building
There is a different tale to tell at Town Square Towers (TST). This nine-story condominium at 700 South Seventh St. SW, just across the street from The District Wharf, dates from 1969. Unlike its younger neighbors, it was not designed for recycling.

TST was built with two trash chutes for its 285 units, one on each side. Neither are dedicated to recycling. Rather, all trash rooms are equipped with two blue bins, one reserved for paper/cardboard and the other for plastic and glass. The latter bin is outfitted with replaceable clear plastic bags.

TST’s cleaning staff picks up the recycling from each floor in carts. The glass and plastics are contained in clear plastic bags while the cardboard and paper remain loose. The materials are then transported to special recycling bins in the northern trash room. According to TST General Manager Ronnette Bowlding, the building generates two cubic yards of recyclables per pickup or 40 cubic tons a month.

Bowlding selected Pittsburgh-based Roadrunner Waste Management (www.roadrunnerwm.com) to handle her building’s recycling needs. The company, a “trash and recycling broker,” contracts Uber-style with independent haulers, who pick up both TST’s trash and recycling thrice weekly. The company hand sorts recyclables, reselling them on the open market to local buyers.

Roadrunner’s unique business model for dealing with commingled recyclables saves the company a tremendous amount of money, since it does not have to directly bear the costs of a fleet of trucks, said Senior Account Executive Chris Smith.

“If we pick up cardboard, glass, plastic and aluminum, they (Roadrunner clients) get a report on all four streams, with the tonnage numbers broken down by month,” Smith said, “as well as how much of the recycled material is diverted from landfills.”

Posting recycling instructions in foreign languages (as well as simply using graphics) is seen as an effective way to communicate the rules in an international city like Washington.

The new deal with Roadrunner is going well. “Now, we basically have one set price with them, so we don’t get charged for overages,” Bowlding said. “That wasn’t the case with Republic (the former contractor). We paid whatever they charged, which varied from month to month. They would also charge us for coming back to pick up contaminated loads without informing our office, so to make cost comparisons, we had to guesstimate what we paid the same month in the previous year.”

Roadrunner, Bowlding said, “picks up whatever we have for the same flat fee every month, including contamination, for $3,100. So, no more overages.”

The TST office works hard to ensure residents understand how to recycle. The weekly newsletter offers suggestions. There are posted instructions in every trash room.

As for Town Square residents, they are “not good” about recycling, said Bowlding. “Nobody cooperates, nobody reads the instructions. About half of the residents, if they see contamination atop the recycle bins,” she added, “will throw it in the trash. But that’s it.” The key, Roadrunner has told her, is to keep the wet bottles and cans from soaking the valuable commingled cardboard, which is why that is separated by the cleaning staff in clear plastic bags.

A simple inspection demonstrates the challenge at TST. Residents don’t clean glass or plastic bottles, aluminum cans or plastic containers. They also often put their recycling out in supermarket plastic bags, which badly clog most recycling sorting machines.

Even if residents and management companies are attentive, haulers themselves may judge recycling loads contaminated. In which case, they are dispatched directly to the incinerator or landfill.

Hauling It Away
Hauling is the next step in recycling materials from large residential communities. The road to getting started as a hauler in DC is relatively easy. The city’s Dept. of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) licenses all hauling companies in the District.

The DCRA application requests a company’s contact information, a list of all collection vehicles and an email address. It must be completed annually. Companies are also required to register with the DC Dept. of Public Works (DPW). DPW requires them to report the location, name, material type, tonnage and destination facility for all “solid waste deliveries,” which includes recyclables. The reporting must be broken down by quarter, but can be submitted annually.

The two largest haulers in the city are Waste Management and Republic. WB Waste Solutions, WB Waste, Goode Companies Inc., Bates Trucking & Trash Removal and Lawrence Street Industries number among the other key players. The remaining smaller operations include kmG and a plethora of mom ’n pop operations equipped with pickup trucks. In total, there are approximately 50 haulers serving the District.

Republic services “about 4,000 business customers in the city,” said Republic’s DC General Manager Lisa Mears. The company runs “about 20 routes” in the city that make from 65 to 100 stops daily, six days a week. Each of their trucks holds five tons of recycled materials. Their dumpsters hold up to eight cubic yards of material.

First, two-person teams check each receptacle for contamination; there’s nothing scientific about their approach. “Eyeballing the contents works just fine,” said Mears. “It’s very easy. If they see a toter (container) with a few plastic bags in it, it becomes trash. Bags are strictly prohibited because they badly clog the sorting equipment at the MRF and we don’t know what’s inside of them.”

“If there’s broken glass or a dirty needle in it, we don’t want anyone getting hurt,” Mears said. “So, it gets tossed.”

If a container is deemed to be fully contaminated, the driver informs dispatch, which notifies the customer. Customers either clean out the bin themselves or have Republic come back and deal with the issue by paying a contamination fee based on the size of the container. “That,” Mears said, “is the only way to change the behavior.”

“Some people will do it right to save the planet,” Mears said, “and others will if there are financial repercussions.”

Haulers transport clean loads to a transfer station, such as the District’s Fort Totten Transfer facility. There it is dumped on the “tipping floor” to recheck for contamination. Rejected loads are sent to the incinerator or landfill. Clean loads are aggregated and placed on 55-foot tractor trailers that can hold up to 13 tons of recyclables. The city generates approximately four loads a day from Fort Totten.

The tractor trailers haul the recyclables to MRFs such as Republic’s Manassas operation or Waste Management’s Elkins, West Virginia, facility. There is a catch, however, even for bringing clean loads. “The employees at the MRF will come back and charge me a significant fee for anything that has to be disposed of as trash,” Mears said.

Then after the materials are sorted and bailed, the company’s materials group takes over. “It goes on the open market,” Mears said, “and they constantly look for who’s buying what product and for what rate, which depends on the supply and demand that day.”

Recycling By The Numbers
Operating a recycling truck “costs $150-$250 per hour. So, you first have to charge to cover those expenses,” said Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) Executive Director David Biderman.

That’s part of what makes rejecting contaminated loads at multi-unit dwellings expensive. “It’s doubly important for collectors to educate those customers and that means doing it in multiple languages, even three or more,” said Biderman. “That’s especially necessary in DC, since a significant portion of the population is comprised of immigrants from all over the world who often come from places that don’t recycle. And many of them live in multi-family housing.”

The practical mantra for recycling is “loose, clean and dry,” said Biderman. “Those are the three words that haulers and local governments need to communicate better.”

Moving forward is about common sense. “For instance, it’s important to remind people to never place plastic bags, obviously, or lithium batteries in with their recycling,” Biderman said. “The batteries can often catch on fire in recycling and disposal facilities.”

Some haulers fight back against contamination by placing a sticker on the dirty bins. “Haulers don’t pick them up. That is typically done by those working in the single-family home market. “It’s tough to do that in the private market because there can be 70 people living on one floor and you’re hoping they all do the right thing,” said Biderman.

Given the involvement of DCRA and DPW in licensing and monitoring DC’s haulers, one would imagine the industry operates under a microscope. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

The Regulators: Asleep At The Wheel
DPW’s Office of Waste Diversion (OWD) requires solid waste collectors to register their business and report waste tonnages annually. The agency’s Solid Waste Education and Enforcement Program (SWEEP) oversees enforcement including the operations of recycling commercial private haulers. The program has three Environmental Crimes Unit Investigators and 23 Solid Waste Inspectors. None of these staff are assigned specifically to audit the operations of private recycling haulers, stated the agency in its responses prepared for the DC Council FY-2021-2022 performance hearing last winter.

SWEEP works with DCRA to maintain an accurate list of active solid waste haulers and ensure that these companies comply with the city’s solid waste reporting rules, which require companies to report the origin, destination and composition of every solid waste delivery on an annual basis. 109 landscaper/haulers registered in FY 2020 for an estimated 87 percent registration compliance rate, the agency stated.

“At this time our ECU team is responsible for ensuring that private haulers who operate in DC are properly licensed and comply with DC hauling regulations. Our solid waste inspectors are tasked with making sure that all private haulers are providing commercial establishments with trash and recycling containers or dumpsters that are free of defects. They are also responsible for making sure commercial properties have a minimum of twice weekly solid waste and recycling collection,” the agency stated in response to this reporter’s queries.

DPW also maintains “high standards” for the quality of single-stream recyclables that are transferred through Ft. Totten Solid Waste Transfer Station. When contamination exceeds 18 percent, DPW charges haulers applicable fees for reclassification of material as trash or refuse and an administrative fee for the contamination, DPW stated.

“All SWEEP inspectors/investigators have the authority to, and are tasked with, ensuring private haulers are in compliance with DC laws and regulations. When a hauler is found in violation of the law, they are issued a citation,” an agency representative stated. “While we have the authority to inspect trash and recycling rooms in multi-unit dwellings to ensure separation compliance, we do not have the authority to stop or inspect vehicles used by private haulers,” DPW stated. However, “Inspectors witnessing an infraction can issue a warning or a Notice of Violation.”

In 2021, SWEEP did conduct 200 in-person inspections of multi-family dwellings. However, this was for the purpose of creating a baseline for future operations, rather than for enforcement purposes.

Asked how many inspectors DPW employs to inspect recycling operations or police haulers at its 2022 performance hearing, DPW responded “None.” SWEEP inspectors do not monitor the tipping operations at Fort Totten. However, DPW does screen recyclables there. If a load is judged more than 18 percent contaminated on the tipping floor, the agency levies an additional fee on the hauler. This creates a significant incentive for haulers to reclassified recyclables as trash, rather than risking the surcharge.

In FY 2021, DPW issued a total of 44 citations to errant haulers. Of these, 23 involved a failure to have a valid recycling registration. One involved a lack of a valid solid waste collector’s registration. 13 involved a failure to submit required quarterly reports and another five were for failure to file annual reports, stated the agency in response to Council queries.

In other words, all of the 44 DPW enforcement actions involve reporting or registration infractions. The program took no action against any recycling hauler relating to actual non-compliant recycling operations.

In fact, the District make no attempt to oversee or audit the recycling operations of commercial haulers. To be more specific, SWEEP conducts no inspections of commercial waste haulers, residential buildings nor does it oversee the tipping floor at Fort Totten. As a result, the agency did not routinely issue citations for their operational infractions.

“For better or worse, DPW only has about 20 inspectors,” said Charlotte Dreizen, a former DPW program analyst. “They used to have 40. So those 20 inspectors equate to about two per ward, so it’s crazy to expect that two people can oversee such a vast area.”

Due to short staffing, DPW prioritizes calls to 311, the city’s Office of Unified Communications hotline, “There are so many calls that it’s like playing whack-a-mole to find an inspector,” Dreizen said. “So, they have little time to actually enforce recycling violations.”

Given the DPW’s reporting requirements, citizens might think the efficacy of the District’s private haulers would be easily publicly ascertained. For the multi-family dwellings, the agency estimates that 24,470 tons of recyclables were put out for collection in 2018; the estimate for 2023 is 26,935 tons, according to the 2021 Desktop Waste Characterization Study.

However, the agency’s numbers do not include recyclables mistakenly placed by residents in trash. Nor do they include contaminated loads dispatched (either by the hauler directly or after tipping at the transfer station) to the landfill or the incinerator. In fact, DPW’s 2018 Waste Diversion Report estimates only 13 percent of recyclables in these large, multi-unit dwellings end up successfully recycled.

Further dismal statistics of recycling can be gleaned from the DC Council’s Committee on Transportation & Environment’s DPW oversight hearings. The recycling diversion rate is defined as the weight of diverted waste (recyclables) divided by the weight of all waste then multiplied by 100. It has declined 1.34 during the past four fiscal years:

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

Furthermore, these stats are not broken down between single-family and multi-unit dwellings. So, it is impossible to ascertain whether the private hauling system is working effectively. Yet, a strong market for recyclables may still provide a pathway to zero waste.

A Flawed System
Today’s market for clean recyclables provides a stronger incentive than regulation to prompt haulers to maximize the clean loads delivered to MRFs. Haulers know the value of cardboard “has been high for the past 18 months, driven in part by Amazon and general ecommerce demand,” Biderman said. “So, companies want to collect as much cardboard as they can. It’s a hot commodity.”

“There are even companies like Pratt Industries, a leading consumer of discarded cardboard, that take out ads in the Washington Post that illustrate how recycling is good for the environment and creates jobs,” Biderman said.

Creative haulers such as TST’s Roadrunner that hand sort comingled loads for a set price while holding their costs down by contracting out the collection, provide a possible model for the future. They earn their profits from maximizing their recycling.

Thus, it would seem that private haulers have a great incentive to push clients to educate residents and charge steep fines for contaminated loads. If costs are covered by hauling contracts, then the more recycling it can sell, the more profitable the business is. However, if the reported Diversion rates for 2018-2021 are any indication that does not seem to be working.

With DPW providing very limited enforcement, both buildings and haulers have little incentive to change. Inconsistent rules, uneven city educational efforts and lack of enforcement continue to doom Mayor Bowser’s commitment to diverting 80 percent of the District’s waste from incinerators and landfills by 2032.

“Recycling is not working as well as it could or it should,” said Biderman. “We need to identify and take advantage of best practices in other markets and apply them here in DC to create a higher diversion rate. It creates jobs, it’s good for the environment and it’s the right thing to do.

“Washington is a world-class city,” Biderman said. “It should be a leader in recycling, too.” To do that, the District will have to hold both large apartment buildings and haulers accountable.

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.