DC’s Recycling Woes: What’s Next?

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DC’s Zero Waste Initiative is a big zero. The District’s goal of 80% waste diversion remains largely aspirational, Capital Community News’s Spotlight Investigation has revealed. More specifically:

  • The District recycles only 16% of its waste.
  • The portion of total waste recycled has fallen 1.34% over the last four years.
  • Only 13% of total waste generated by apartment buildings is recycled.
  • The District does not audit the recycling operations of private trash haulers.
  • The city fines private haulers for contaminated recycling, incentivizing them to trash their loads.

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh (D), chair of the DC Council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment, is critical of DC’s lack of progress toward Zero Waste.

“It’s plain to me that the executive branch does not regard this area as a high-priority item, which is a terrible shame because the District leads in so many areas of the environment,” stated Cheh during the Department of Public Works’ 2022 performance hearing. She termed DPW’s Zero Waste Initiative “embarrassing.”

This article, the last in CCN’s Spotlight DC series on recycling, examines the many ways DC might improve its efforts to achieve Zero Waste. It starts by examining short-term strategies such as elimination at source, improvements to the city’s aging recycling infrastructure and the revision of expensive contracts. It then turns to the adoption of new strategies. Last, it looks at a hauler that offers a new way of operating recycling operations in large residential buildings that generate most of the city’s waste.

Eliminate the Source
The easiest way to get to Zero Waste is to ensure materials never enter the recycling stream in the first place. The DC Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE) is encouraging the repair and reuse of items. “We think of source reduction as being the key to improvement,” said Stefan Roha, program analyst for DOEE. “General education about product reuse is important, too.”

DOEE’s Sustainable DC 2.0 program encourages residents to donate unwanted items for repair and reuse. “We have fix-it events, as older product can often be fixed instead of tossed into a waste stream,” Roha said, noting Fix-It DC events are held monthly at the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, at Ninth and G streets NW.

Charlotte Dreizen, a former DPW employee and recycling activist, echoes Roha’s enthusiasm. She recommends creating safe centers located conveniently in each ward to recycle things that materials recovery facilities (MRFs) do not want such as mattresses, paint or glass. “In other words, everything that is not supposed to be in the blue bins,” she said. “Cities like Denver and Boulder, Colorado, have these facilities.”

“The city can also improve its recycling efforts via extended producer responsibility (EPR), which calls for manufacturers of packaging to pay for, and manage, their own recycling,” Dreizen said. “The manufacturers don’t like it, but that’s why diversion rates in Europe are much better.”

For instance, the target diversion rate in the European Union, which has had a recycling program for about 25 years, is about 55%. That goal has been met in 21 EU countries, with Belgium and Germany, the first European countries to go the EPR route in the 1990s, having reached 80% in 2019, according to Eurostat.

Still, Dreizen said, the approach is rarely incorporated stateside. “It’s been proposed in several states but has only passed in Maine and Oregon. No city has ever passed it.” That said, there’s “no reason EPR can’t be part of DC’s plan,” Dreizen declared, adding that a company can direct its own program or just pay the government for that service, based on how much packaging the company produces.

Pay As You Throw
Another tactic is to create financial incentives to reduce waste by charging residents and businesses a fee based on the amount of waste they generate. Seattle, San Francisco and Austin employ what are known as pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) programs. “We offer recycle carts in two sizes (64 and 96 gallons) that can be upsized at no extra charge, along with trash carts in four sizes (24, 32, 64 and 96 gallons). As people downsize the trash containers, they pay less per month,” said Robert Gedert, president of the National Recycling Coalition, “and they can increase the amount of recycled materials at no extra cost.”

A 96-gallon trash bin is “very costly” at $36 per month, whereas the 24-gallon bin is about $7 per month, said Gedert.

Echoing Gedert, Chris Weiss, executive director at DC Environmental Network, said that “every city on the planet with a decent zero-waste program has some kind of PAYT system.”

And PAYT would result in “better data and analytics,” Weiss said. “The people who run the landfills and incinerators are often cagey about how much trash they’re getting and how much projects cost, since they have contracts. It’s sometimes hard for environmentalists and everyone else to get the information we need to analyze what they’re doing.”

The incentive is that PAYT charges for garbage removal, but not for recycling or composting, points out Neil Seldman, director of the Waste to Wealth Initiative for the Initiative for Local Self-Reliance. Because PAYT charges for garbage removal, but not recycling or composting, “people are financially encouraged to throw everything [allowable] into the recycle bin,” he said.

This year, DPW plans to conduct a feasibility/economic outcomes study on implementing PAYT, or, as it calls it, a “variable rate pricing model,” for public collection properties.

Lower the Cost
Even without PAYT, the District should examine whether it can reduce recycling costs and increase efficiencies by changing its MRF (materials recovery facility). DC can lower the cost of recycling, said Seldman. Right now, the city pays $119 per ton plus a $25 glass surcharge to send recyclables to the Waste Management MRF, which is 27 miles north of DC’s Fort Totten Transfer Station, in Elkridge, Maryland.

“I’ve never heard of a cost that’s any higher anywhere in the country,” Seldman said. The WB Waste Solutions, state-of-the-art MRF just over the city line charges $99 per ton. That move alone, said Seldman, “would save the city up to $500,000.”

Renovate the Infrastructure
Even if the city adopts PAYT to reduce trash at its source and changes its MRF, the recycling program remains hamstrung by its two obsolete trash transfer stations. The residential dropoff area at Fort Totten Trash Transfer Station has major rainwater runoff problems. The city is constructing a new ramp to replace the previous bulk trash staging area as part of an interagency stormwater pollution partnership between the Department of General Services, DOEE and DPW. Construction began in June with completion by the end of September. In the interim, commercial, municipal and residential dropoff activities have been diverted to three separate locations.

The construction of a new facility at Benning Road was funded last year. The site hosts the District’s residential dropoff services, including household hazardous waste, e-recycling and shredding. The land, once the site of an incinerator, is contaminated from its years of use and a mid-2021 fire. DPW has awarded management of the project to Washington-based McKissack & McKissack.

DOEE began its subsurface assessment, remediation and control measures in late June. The agency is slated to finish in mid-July. However, the full scope of the contamination remains unknown. Remediation may delay construction for a number of years.

Rethink Hauling
Before a load of recyclables from a large residential community even gets to the city’s trash transfer station, a private hauler evaluates it for contamination. Most of these contractors make their money hauling trash rather than from recycling. The exception is RoadRunner Recycling.

RoadRunner Recycling was founded in 2014 in Pittsburgh. The company now operates in 20 markets nationwide including the District.

Founder Graham Rihn believes the waste collection services industry in the United States is outdated and expensive. RoadRunner brings a fresh approach. The company takes over the contract for a client’s trash removal. Then it employs independent contractors operating their own box trucks to pick up the client’s recycling, which is taken directly to a MRF for processing and sale on the open market.

“Our portfolio management team looks at the client’s entire waste portfolio and takes all of the waste and recycling tasks off of their plate,” said the company’s marketing coordinator, Brian Ferris. “Customers get waste into the bins, then sort plastic bottles, aluminum cans, etc. in plastic bags” to keep them separate from the valuable cardboard to minimize contamination and maximize the value of the material.

How the process works comes down to customer behavior, Ferris stated. “We give them the bins and it’s up to them to sort their recyclables the right way. We do educate them.” RoadRunner teams are in “almost daily” contact with customers via postcards, seminars and signage. “We work with them however we have to make sure that they are recycling the right materials,” said Ferris.

RoadRunner picks up the day’s haul even if a customer contaminates it. “We still take it to the MRFs and the workers separate the trash from the recycling. But what our box truck haulers bring in is still 99% clean because of the investment we make in education,” Ferris said.

When the loads are “clean enough,” Ferris said, Roadrunner is able “to skip the sorting line in the MRF and move straight to the sorting machines.” he said. “We go from collection directly to the MRFs, where we tip for approximately $90 per ton. Skipping the initial sorting saves money and we have a 99% recycling rate, as opposed to the usual 20% in the industry.”

Major investors have taken notice of RoadRunner. The company has received $70 million in funding so far in 2022 for a total of $130 million since its founding.

Conclusion
If all haulers adopted RoadRunner’s approach, the District diversion rate might skyrocket, since only 13% of waste from large residential communities is currently diverted. With the adoption of PAYT, better residential education, the addition of compost collection as well as switching the MRFs, Seldman believes the District’s recycling rate “would rise from about 20% diversion to 40% in three years, then 60% diversion in six years.” “Plus,” Seldman points out, “WB Waste Solutions would have cleaner product to sell on the open market, and they would make more money and share it with the DC government.”

Interim DPW Director Michael Carter disputes Cheh’s dismal assessment of DC’s recycling efforts. In a letter to Cheh’s committee last February, he wrote optimistically of DPW’s efforts to reach 80% diversion goal by 2032. The District’s recent marketing efforts employed digital, print, mail, billboards curbside recycling tagging to convince residents not to place their recyclables in plastic bags. Paired with operational improvements at the Fort Totten Transfer Station, this “prompted an 11% recycling contamination rate, the lowest rate ever observed,” Carter crowed.

According to Carter, DPW has developed a “robust toolkit” to “help apartment buildings, condominiums and cooperatives deliver recycling programs to the more than 400,000 residents who live in these buildings.”

Carter’s optimism is disputed by Councilmember Cheh. “I have seen no vision or urgency from the agency on this front,” Cheh stated at DPW’s most recent performance hearing. “If anything, DPW leadership has been a roadblock to achieving progress on critical initiatives such as launching curbside composting in the District or other planning to reduce the amount of our waste stream that ends up in landfills or the incinerator.”

The District will have to move more aggressively for Zero Waste to be more than a pipedream.

Mark R. Smith is a freelance writer based in Odenton, Maryland. He writes for the Business Monthly in Columbia, Maryland, 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 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.

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

 Read more in this Spotlight Investigative Series: