Wednesday, April 16, 2008

DC Recycling Redux

So, SuperDork MamaBird here. I just got home from the Chevy Chase Citizens Association's Green Meeting, where I heard a riveting talk on recycling given by DC's Director of the Dept.of Public Works (and I am so serious about that, this guy was smart and real). This, my friends, is what I spent my child-free capital on for the week. My, "Honey, can you put the kids to bed?" card? Now gone. And, baby, it was totally worth it! Thanks, William Howland, you totally had me on the edge of my seat.

Tidbits about DC's recycling program you might not have known but would totally have given up your night with your honey for:

  • Totally fascinating financial lowdown: just 2 1/2 years ago, it cost more to recycle a ton of waste ($45) than it did to landfill a ton of waste ($40). Now? It costs more to landfill a ton of waste ($65) than it does to recycle it ($18!). Apparently, the recycling market has changed largely due to the cost of aluminum (note that this is the second-most-popular recyclable item found in DC waste headed for the landfill).
  • Where the heck does DC recycling go? Loyal reader SF, I did not forget about you and your wonderings. To a transfer station and then a recycling center outside of Columbia, MD. There, to separate out our commingled recycling (aka glass shards in amongst your coconut milk cans), they use people fans, and magnets to sort it out. 95% is good to recycle. 5% gets kicked out as trash (back to the landfill). MamaBird asked what we can do to make sure we don't contaminate trash. Howland and his coworkers said the top contaminants were: plastic newspaper/grocery bags (you can't stick these in your blue recycling container -- you need to take them to the grocery store to be recycled there); pizza boxes and soiled food; and non-glass containers (ie ceramic).
  • In October-November of last year, DPW did a waste sort and went through 91 trash and recycling trucks. They methodically sorted, ward by ward, to determine what people were not recycling. The #1 missed opportunity? Paperboard: toilet paper tubes and cereal boxes. The #2 missed opportunity was aluminum cans (Yikes! this is what makes our recycling cost-effective). The most interesting finding for DPW was the sheer quantity of tossed clothing.
  • DPW collects waste from about 110,000 households. This limits the city's ability to expand its recycling program. "We don't produce enough recyclable material." Basically, in order to "do more," we'd have to team up with other jurisdictions (MD or VA).
  • Only 17-18% of the waste stream in DC (by weight) is recycled! Gulp. The other 82-3% goes to the landfill. The City Council set a bar of 45% to be recycled in the early 90s.
Admit it, you want more recycling tidbits....
  • If you want free compost for your community garden or local site, call (202) 727-1000 and ask about the Helping Hands program; DPW will deliver compost for centralized pickup.
  • The leaves we put curbside? The ones getting sucked up by the huge vacuum hoses CBoy adores so? Are not currently being composted by the city; they go to Pogo Organics (so our tax dollars and careful stewardship of our leaves end up in the benefiting a private, albeit green company).
  • Two years ago, the city did a pilot program with the EPA composting leaves at Oak Hill -- that compost is what the city has available for distribution -- this pilot program was successful and, according to Howland, "Now we know we can do it (compost successfully)."
  • In the future, DPW plans to: make finished compost available at transfer stations; have shredders at transfer stations to encourage folks to recycle sensitive papers; have weekly hazardous materials pickups (yeah!) at transfer stations so you don't have to hit the twice-yearly Hazardous Waste pickups we have now (coming up! April 26th!).
  • Commercial waste (which includes anyplace with more than four units!) is not handled by the District DPW. The haulers of this material can take it wherever (DC, MD, VA) it's most convenient.
  • Another audience member asked how much organic waste was collected of the total: 8,000 tons/year out of about 225,000 tons/year total. Lots of room to compost.
  • Didja know that the bulk trash items (like sofas) are recycled (well, the metal in them)?
  • Howland said that they just hired their first webmaster and are trying to "spice up" their recycling site, so keep checking back.
  • DC's going to start using recycled soy oil for its fleet of DPW vehicles.
More lowdown on the Green Meeting in the days to come... xoxo


De in D.C. said...

I have to say, those are some cool stats. I'm in Ffx Co. and while our trash service people claim that you can add paperboard to your recycling bin, they continually leave any large boxes (I'll stack broken down boxes into one single cardboard box) for the regular trash collection. It is very infuriating.

I joined my 7yo and his scout pack on a tour of our local transfer station last fall. The program did discuss how much recyclable material is just disposed of (important lessons for the 7yo crowd), but I found the parts relating to actual trash disposal to be the most interesting. Our local landfill is an incineration facility, so the only thing added is ashes. Any water vapor that is converted to steam during the incineration process is recaptured and converted into energy to help power the facility. Cool stuff.

Susannah said...

Thanks, MamaBird! We are just coming off our Strep Tour 2008, so I couldn't join you, but thanks so much for representing.

My tip of the day: we keep a recycling bin on the second floor as well as on the first so every little piece of paper or cardboard is harvested (like all those magazine "blow cards," TP rolls, and other detritus). Glad to know it's actually going somewhere!

Lynn from said...

That's a great report - thanks!

In MC, they advertised two or three $30K positions for people to police what was being recycled and what wasn't.... Households supposedly can be fined, but many businesses are still doing so little...hopefully Bethesda Green will help with that.

I think the next frontier is metal recycling. There's a great neighborhood recycling challenge going on in Cabin John.

Burbanmom said...


Sounds like a rockin' time! Very interesting stats.

I'm trading in a "I'll watch your kids if you watch mine" card next week with one of my friends. My big day out? Not the spa, not the coffee shop.... the recycling plant is giving a tour! Dude I'm so freaking excited! A little p.o.'d though... they won't let me bring my camera. WTF?!?!?

Nora Bee said...

For what it's worth, I found this really interesting. That was a nice public service of you to give up your night out for us :-). Also fun for me to read about Chevy Chase, as a former Bethesda resident now on the west coast....

MamaBird said...

De in DC - your local transfer station tour sounds like cool stuff indeed - I would love to go on one!

Susannah - love your tip of the day - I need to set up recycling/composting for 2nd floor too.

Lynn -- Bethesda Green sounds like it (hopefully) will have some teeth. Will check out the Cabin John metal challenge, too!

Burbanmom -- you so totally need to get outfitted with a hidden camera - can't wait till you report back.

Nora Bee! So glad you stopped by (whopping cornbread is such a great read, all) + to learn that you're a former Bethesdian!

ScrappyUntechie - said...

Mama Bird,

Way to go with the inspirational info.

We put the stuff in an old green (DC) recycling bin outside our door. Then, we dump that in the big blue can every week for pickup. Works for us!

Keep up the awesome posts...


scormeny said...

Good news! Since you wrote this, the District has started accepting plastic bags in our residential recycling bins.

Also, hazardous waste -- electronic and otherwise -- can now be dropped off at Benning Road or Fort Totten Transfer Stations on Saturdays from 8 am to 3 pm.,a,1200,q,575102.asp