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The district’s scramble for transforming waste systems and working towards a more sustainable city

Photo taken by Katya Podkovyroff Lewis

WASHINGTON – Recycling in D.C., as in all cities, is tied to the solid waste management systems of the city. But the District’s history involving waste and recycling is long and diverse, resulting in complications even up to present day. This awakening in D.C.’s waste management and recycling habits that is underway, has a metamorphosed from restaurants and retailers to local government and city officials.

Some of it feels sudden — as if a collective conversation about straws had occurred and Starbucks immediately responded by announcing it would eliminate single-use plastic straws in some 28,000 stores.

Other changes have been a slow burn. In 2010, Washington D.C. placed a fee on plastic bags after The Department of Energy and Environment conducted a trash study of the city’s Anacostia River and discovered that disposable plastic bags were one of its largest sources of litter. Since that time, there have been similar movements in other states, including California and New York.

But D.C. has had a long history with transforming its’ waste systems and moving towards sustainability. The Kenilworth Dump which was created by the city adjacent to the Kenilworth neighborhood in Northeast DC in the early 1940s as the city’s population boomed during World War II. Despite widespread complaints from the surrounding neighborhood, garbage was tipped and burned in the open. In 1968 a young boy was accidentally burned to death while playing amongst the fires. First Lady Lady Bird Johnson led the campaign to shut down the operations. A ‘sanitary’ landfill was built on the site, which served the city until the 1970s.

Mayor Marion Barry’s administration, which lasted from 1979-1999, took an important step forward but ultimately put the city at a disadvantage in solid waste management. Barry made DC one of the first cities in the country to distribute wheeled and covered carts to each household in a strategy to address the rat infestation problems plaguing major parts of the city.

“Solid waste management, in general was ignored because yeah there were new trucks with lifts that were employed but they were not replaced and a maintenance system could not keep the trucks on the road,”  said Neil Seldman, Director of Waste to Wealth Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

However, local initiatives have also taken the spotlight. Since 2011, Compost Cab has run an independent drop-off point at FreshFarm’s Dupont Circle market. The tent, now part of the Food Scrap Drop-Off Program, allows for shoppers to drop off food scraps year round. Compost Cab at the Dupont market also offers compost bins, compostable liners, and finished compost.

According to the Compost Cab website, “Composting is about more than waste reduction. Community composting done right is about food production, education, nutrition, job creation, it’s about community.”

Organizations like Compast Cab are not uncommon, especially in such an aspiringly eco-friendly city such as the District. D.C.’s environmentally conscious entrepreneurs include organizations working towards trash pick-ups, composting networks, environmental education efforts, and much more. Although a key focal point of waste management in the city as of late has been on the concentration of single-use plastics, particularly straws.

“A recycling bin is an implied promise: Give me your water bottle, your pizza box, your crumpled newspaper and the lid to your coffee cup, and I will magically transform your cast-offs into fleece, fiberfill, paper towels and playground equipment,” said Seldman.

But it’s not that easy. Much of what we hope will be recycled ends up in the trash because it’s contaminated. The food containers are dirty, the pizza box is grease-stained, the newspaper is wet. Even when clean, the materials recovered from recycling need a market.

Seldman said single-stream recycling is to blame for the struggles recycling is facing, enticing people to keep non recyclables in their everyday lives. The recycling rate in the U.S. started climbing in the 1980s and 1990s, but slowed in 2000 to 34 percent and hasn’t risen since.

“Cities have to make it easy by providing a list of what recycles and what doesn’t that people can tack to the wall. Cities can also help by instituting unit pricing — charging by the amount garbage people put out for collection, and finally, switch to curb sort. The worker sorts recycling into the truck at the curb, leaving behind what doesn’t recycle. It’s an educational feedback loop,” he said.

By late 1988, recycling consciousness in the city, as in cities across the US, helped Councilmember Nadine Winter pass a mandatory recycling law for households and businesses. The Barry administration had to comply, but with little enthusiasm. It did introduce curbside recycling collection.

“Curbside recycling was dropped two times by the city,” said Seldman. “It was only after citizen complaints that were taken up by numerous environmental organizations and community activists that they were reestablished.”

The city did establish a Solid Waste Advisory Commission with appointments made by each City Council member and the Mayor, as required by the recycling law. But recycling stagnated for decades as the Commission was ignored and then discontinued.

The recycling program was contracted out to a private hauling firm, Waste Management, Inc. But recycling participation remained stagnated and the only improvement under the Department of Public Works was the decision to contract with a nearby composting company, Pogo, in Sunshine, MD, to take from 5,000-8,000 tons of fall leaves instead of mixing the leaves with garbage at city transfer stations and trucking to an incinerator or landfill.

The deterioration of the city’s solid waste infrastructure forced the city under Mayor Williams to address the issue full on, according to Eileen Kao, chief of Waste Reduction and Recycling Section of the Department of Environmental Protection under the Division of Solid Waste Services.

Increased pressure from environmental organizations and citizens pressed the City Council to take action resulting in the Sustainable Solid Waste Management Amendment Act of 2014, which provided a pathway forward.

The DPW was put on notice to start gathering data from the private sector for the first time. The DPW was also ordered to look into the feasibility of unit pricing for garbage collection and to develop a comprehensive composting program, as well as a waste reduction program. Mayor Bowser appointed an entirely new staff to lead the DPW, who have responded well to the mandate of the 2014 legislation.

Negotiations coordinated by Chris Weiss of the DC Environmental Network and newly appointed DPW director Chris Shorter led to the formation of a citizen advisory committee that meets quarterly.

“The city’s recycling rate is still well below the national average and far below the recycling levels reached by other major cities,” said Weiss.

Weiss felt that too many environmental measures have been defeated by wealthy special interests rather than focusing on the issues at hand.

According to ILSR, the city’s estimated 25,000 tons of recycled metal, glass, paper and plastic are sent to a Waste Management Inc. facility in Elkridge, MD, where they are processed for markets with transportation costs being nearly $1 million a year.

Processing at this very large materials recovery facility is not efficient and a good percentage of materials, especially glass and plastic are not recovered but used by Waste Management, Inc., as landfill cover, according to the Energy Justice Network.

“Recycling will have a much brighter future in DC under the current DPW leadership,” said Seldman.

Seldman said The DPW has already initiated a Ward based drop-off program for haulers and citizens in anticipation of a comprehensive effort to get organics out of the city’s waste stream.

Likewise, the creation of a school-based food waste collection for composting is a program of the DC Department of General Services and the DC Parks and Recreation also runs the community composting cooperative network at 50 DPR gardens and partner sites in each of the City’s Wards.

“These are all key avenues for the city to engage citizens in the importance of composting, recycling, and generally learning how to take care of the waste they produce,” Seldman said.

While the city officials and local organizations tackle these issues involving recycling and waste, D.C. restaurants and bars have also made promises to customers about their efforts embracing sustainability.

According to Bill Easley, Recycling Program Officer in the Office of Waste Diversion under DPW, they work with various other entities to include schools, restaurants, and local dc councils and initiatives, to include D.C.’s very own Compost Cab.

Although Easley admitted that oftentimes his department does not work directly with restaurants, there have been times where his office have worked at a 1:1 basis with a restaurant looking to better their sustainability practices.

Once a trend, “farm-to-table” is now virtually expected at most restaurants. But as awareness of sourcing and sustainability grows, just being farm-to-table is not enough. Many D.C. restaurants have risen to meet the challenge, and are taking the concepts of sustainability, biodynamic agriculture, local farming and environmental friendliness to the next level.

Locations such as HipCityVeg, Sweetgreen, Chaia, Little Sesame, Luke’s Lobster, Founding Farmers, and more, have all guaranteed some sort of environmental sustainability promise. Be it from being locally sourced vegan food to being secured B Corporation or LEED certification, competition in the city’s food scene to be environmentally conscious is underway.

B Corps are for-profit companies that are certified to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. There are only about 2000 certified B corporations in the world, Luke’s Lobster being one of those corporations.

Or the popular Big Bear Café which features tons of local produce, dairy and meats, and has been promoting the Bloomingdale Farmers Market for years, which hosts a number of local produce and dairy farmers, meat purveyors and local food artisans. They proudly proclaim on their website, “We preserve our own pickles, cure our own meat, and work to create an efficient kitchen that is sustainable, affordable, and conscientious.”

These steps toward sustainability might seem small, but they can noticeably improve a business’ carbon footprint and bottom line. In 2017, DC was named the first LEED “Platinum City,” a nod to its leadership in this area.