More on zero waste practice (and DC)
DC's DPW is working on implementing the city's sustainability plan's provision on zero waste, which calls for a reduction of the solid waste stream so that 80% of the total is reduced-reduced-recycled.
According to a recent press release, the DPW just hired a couple people from the city's Department of Energy and Environment to move this and other goals forward. Annie White has been hired to be the Manager of the Office of Waste Diversion. According to the press release:
The DPW Office of Waste Diversion is charged with developing a zero waste plan to achieve at least an 80% waste diversion rate. It also serves as a liaison between the District and neighboring jurisdictions in developing regional waste reduction and diversion campaignsI've written a fair amount about this topic, including testifying at a March City Council hearing. That testimony provided an extensive set of recommendations and ideas. Also see the past blog entry "Solid waste management update" from 2014.
This supports my criticism ("Realizing all aspects of Sustainable DC") of the goals of DC's Sustainability Plan and how the city now, with a couple of exceptions, isn't implementing practices at the level of best practice nationally now, so how can the city be expected to surpass by 2032 all other US cities, many of which are already significantly ahead in their sustainability achievements?
From the standpoint of the argument in Alexander Gerschenkron in "The Economic Advantages of Backwardness," the advantage of being behind is you can adopt the newest technologies without losing a lot of money in "sunk investments" in more recent technology.
But this is an advantage only if you adopt the innovative technologies. If you herald adopting less than best practice now, there's no way to catch up to those communities further refining their already better practices.
One exception is how DC Water (WASA), which provides waste treatment services not just to DC but to many of the area's counties, is now generating 30% of its electricity and reducing waste and producing better quality compost as a result of adopting world leading treatment technology ("D.C. Water begins harnessing electricity from every flush," Washington Post).
Austin, Texas. Austin set a zero waste goal in 2011 and as part of the law implementing it, they are required to do a "waste characterization study" every five years for insights on what is and isn't working.
Similar to results from a comparable study in DC, the first Austin Waste Characterization study (2014) found that much of the waste stream was comprised of divertible materials.
One of their findings is that people given the largest cans are less focused on recycling ("Why don’t Austinites recycle more? The answer might be simple," Austin American-Statesman) although part of the problem is that the city collects "trash" every week but recycling only twice each month, and people's recycling cans get full long before they are picked up.
Austin uses the same size 96-gallon trash can distributed outside of DC's rowhouse neighborhoods. In DC's rowhouse neighborhoods, the can is 32-gallons, but they do have twice/week trash pickup (once/week for recyclables).
The Austin DPW created a webpage that is supposed to give recommendations on options for diverting "waste," but in my opinion it's not particularly well developed, because it is inconsistent in the "advice" it offers across items. On some, returned results prioritize "bulk trash pickup" while other terms return results that stress diversion.
Wish cycling and falling economic returns to recycling programs. More recently, media coverage has focused on the effect of the economic downturn and the fall in oil prices (which impacts the value of recycled plastic) making recycling only marginally profitable.
In October, the New York Times ran a long piece in the Sunday Review section ("The Reign of Recycling") calling into question the value of recycling programs more generally, although it focused specifically on calculating the value of the programs only on greenhouse gas emissions, which was criticized in letters to the editor in response ("Where Our Trash Goes").
It's accentuated by the problem that has arisen with single-stream recycling systems (versus sorting-based systems) in that many people toss items into recycling bins that aren't recyclable. This increases the cost of the program.
In the Minneapolis Star-Tribune ("Global shifts put squeeze on Twin Cities recycling" and "Recycling or 'wish cycling'? Materials to stop tossing in the big blue bins") they quote someone in the field calling this "wish cycling." From the first article:
Despite the predictions that the market will eventually turn around, Keegan is less optimistic overall revenues will return to previous levels. That’s partly because higher recycling goals have pushed facilities to process materials like milk cartons and juice boxes that have less resale value. Some new innovative packaging can’t be recycled, but nonetheless ends up in the single-sort bin through what Keegan calls “wish cycling.” And the growth of online media has eroded the amount of recycled newsprint, once a moneymaker. ...From plastic bag bans to styrofoam bans. A few years ago, cities and counties started imposing either bans or charges for plastic bags, to encourage bag reuse. In fact, DC was an early leader in this movement, and for the most part residents and businesses have adjusted.
“We’re including more and more materials that have lower and lower economic value and that are harder and harder to recycle,” Keegan said. “So the economics truly are changing. They aren’t what they were during the last downturn.”
Now the push is to ban polystyrene, which except in the absolute largest cities like NYC ("Judge Strikes Down New York City's Ban on Foam Food Containers," New York Times) can't be recycled cost-effectively. DC's ban on foam containers goes into effect January 1st, 2016 ("Countdown to DC foam food-packaging ban," Washington Business Journal.
Burning trash for electricity. Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran a special section on energy, including a pro/con piece on electricity production from trash ("Does Burning Garbage for Electricity Make Sense?"). The proponents say that it's better to burn trash than to use land. The opponents say that energy production moves the focus away from waste diversion, recycling and related programs.
I have been somewhat skeptical, especially since it appears as if 90% of the waste stream separate from "recycling" programs capture is divertible, and because the City of Harrisburg was driven to bankruptcy, in large part because of problems with a malfunctioning waste-to-energy facility (it's since been sold to the Lancaster City Waste Management Agency, and now it works fine).
Although these days, there are plenty of examples of successful facilities. In fact, DC's trash is burned in a waste-to-energy facility in Fairfax County, Virginia ("D.C.'s trash is now Fairfax facility's treasured commodity," Washington Post).
Nevertheless, millions of pizza boxes are put in recycle bins ("wish recycled") and if not diverted, make recyclable paper and cardboard less usable.
North Carolina State University has created a program to capture pizza boxes in a separate process ("Pizza Box Composting Gets College Try: Campus arms race to go green nets creative efforts to deal with the greasy containers," Wall Street Journal) which is easier for them to do compared to individual households because they can focus on dormitory buildings. From the article:
College students love pizza. They also love recycling. But their pizza boxes are virtually unrecyclable, thanks to the cheesy, greasy residue left behind on the cardboard bottoms. What’s a poor school to do?(Because I hate tearing up pizza boxes for composting, I prefer that we make pizza from scratch. The problem is that when the urge for pizza arises, we don't usually have fresh pizza dough ready for cooking. Yes, I used to just toss pizza boxes into recycling, knowing that the firm that processes DC's recycling has a chipper in their facility for pizza boxes, separate from the recycling stream.)
At North Carolina State University, the answer is the Pizza Box Composting Project—dumpsters placed at eight locations around campus that since early last year have helped turn approximately 16,000 grease-stained boxes into fertilizer.
At Saturday’s packed Homecoming, sophomore volunteer Wesley Phan moved a composting bin in front of a trash can so that it would be noticed by those disposing of their individual pizza boxes during the game. “It’s a strategy,” he said. “You force them to think.”
From my testimony at the March 20, 2015 DC City Council hearing.
Current planning documents and website. A review of the DPW website does not reveal a “Solid Waste Management Plan” document. Last year the department launched a “Strategic Road Map for Solid Waste Management” process. I did fill out the survey, but was unable to attend either of the scheduled meetings. Since then, there doesn’t appear to be much public discussion of the initiative.
On the website, there is a 2011 document, the “Waste Characterization Report,” which studied the city’s waste stream and contains a discussion that is weighted towards the creation of a waste to energy plant.
The DC Sustainability Plan does set a zero waste “stretch” goal. To implement recommendations of the Plan, City Council passed the Sustainable Solid Waste Management Act of 2014, which increases DPW responsibilities concerning sustainable practice going forward, with stronger requirements taking effect starting around 2016. (These documents are not referenced substantively on the DPW website.)
Evaluation of the city’s waste stream. According to the Waste Characterization Review, much of the undiverted “trash stream” is comprised of items that are either recyclable (51.5%) or compostable (40.9%).
The study also references a 2007 DPW study of trash and recycling collection that determined that while about 36% of the city’s waste stream is recyclable, only half that rate is achieved.
It does not appear as if significant studies of different types of properties (e.g., single family attached, single family detached, multiunit residential of various sizes and types, office, restaurants, etc.) have been conducted to determine opportunities for recycling, composting, and source reduction.
Recommended programming. This section outlines best practices that DPW could launch as part of innovative and sustainably-focused solid waste master plan. The items are not necessarily listed in order of importance. Text marked by brackets  is an addition to the original testimony.
[Two items that were not part of the original testimony:
A. Work with pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens to set up medicine disposal programs. This was raised by another person testifying at the March hearing.
B. Consider testing smaller trash cans, currently very large measuring 96-gallon, in the outer city, since larger cans tend to discourage waste sorting and diversion.]
The City of Johannesburg did this with “Pikitup.” as did the employee-owned business that serves the City of San Francisco and other local governments, which is now called “Recology.” Comparably, in DC, WASA has rebranded the entire agency as dc water. On the other hand, a brand is more than a logo.
The Lancaster City Waste Management Authority website is a model of how to deliver the communications of rebranded DC DPW solid waste unit.]
2. Trash trucks as rolling billboards. DPW’s orange and white trash trucks are very distinctive [but also a missed opportunity in that they can be employed as message delivery“vehicles” within social marketing campaigns focused on getting people to adopt more sustainable solid waste management practices.]
A repainted DC DPW recycling truck.
While the agency recently repainted some trucks with murals (something that Philadelphia did 7 years ago), Baltimore and New York City present anti-litter messaging on many of their garbage trucks using social marketing principles.
[New York recently introduced new messaging for their zero waste goal, although personally I think the design is somewhat cryptic.]
3. People don’t believe that recycling is actually recycled. Produce videos that show what happens to recycling.
Even without the recent event, or last year’s trashing of discarded trash and recycling cans made redundant by the distribution of new cans, people have doubts that recycling is actually recycled. Besides videos, the agency could sponsor field trips, and other activities to better educate residents.
4. Develop yard waste diversion and collection programs for the Outer City. DPW should provide differentiated waste collection and diversion programs based on a finer-grained understanding of the respective spatial and urban design conditions across the city. Collection of yard trim is one such opportunity, especially as it accounts for almost 15% of the waste stream at DPW’s transfer stations.
The “outer city” (wards 3, 4, and 5 especially) is comprised in large part of detached houses on larger lots, and significant tree cover, thereby generating a great deal of “yard trim” – leaves, grass, tree limbs, etc.
(See the 2013 blog entry, A way for DC to begin adding yard waste collection as a separate element of waste collection and reduction programming.")
Much of this could be collected and composted, comparable to programs in Montgomery and Prince George’s County, Maryland and Salt Lake City, significantly reducing the amount of waste that is landfilled/incinerated. [Note that Montgomery County emphasizes on-site composting over collection.]
A yard waste diversion and collection program should be piloted in at least one ward within the outer city.
5. Schedule neighborhood-wide bulk trash collection days. Rather than focus on individual bulk trash collection appointments, Salt Lake City organizes collection at the neighborhood scale, with a rolling schedule of “Neighborhood Clean Up” days. Other residents are allowed to pick through and take items that have been set aside for bulk collection on that day. While some demand for individual appointments would still exist, this would simplify bulk trash collection, improve services and promote community building.
In Amsterdam, the Goedsak is used by residents to “discard” items but identify them as still usable and available for taking.
6. For single family households, develop promotion programs for on-site composting. Composting diverts food and yard waste from the waste stream.
Montgomery County probably has the best composting promotion effort in the metropolitan area. My own household learned how to compost from information provided by Montgomery County on their website. (DC government websites are severely deficient in providing such information.)
Because of the high proportion of yard waste and the prevalence of larger lots compared to rowhouse neighborhoods, this should be piloted in the outer city.
Over time, a separate program can be developed for rowhouse neighborhoods. [The Lower East Side Ecology Center piloted composting for apartment dwellers by putting collection bins at the Union Square Greenmarket farmers market.]
7. Develop recycling promotion programs for multifamily residential (MFR) properties. A cursory review of the literature finds some good tests but no particularly exemplary program, and low participation rates. Currently, it does not appear as if the Smarter DC Challenge initiative has plans to extend their campaign to multiunit residential properties.
DC has the opportunity to develop and demonstrate national best practice in this area. Note that some cities have changed zoning and building regulations for MFR properties to facilitate recycling.
8. Pilot a composting program for MFR properties. While large buildings typically don’t generate yard waste, food waste can be a significant proportion of the waste stream and should be addressed. DC has the opportunity to develop and demonstrate national best practice in this area.
9. Use the monthly hazardous materials day as a way to expand special collection programs. [At the beginning of each month DPW has a hazardous materials collection drop off program at the Fort Totten waste transfer station.] Organizations like Community Forklift (building materials), A Wider Circle (furniture and other goods), Wheelchair Society (medical equipment) take donations of items that often are trashed. Used clothing, even if threadbare, is still convertible to rags, according to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, although most people “trash” such items, believing them to be unusable.
The special collection day the first Saturday of the month could be treated as a “special collections fair and expo” and include representatives from organizations such as those listed above, either to promote donation of materials to those organizations or to collect them directly.
Note that special collection bin programs by organizations such as Planet Aid are available within DC. But too often bin areas tend to become unsightly.
10. Promote special collection organizations on the DPW webpage, in brochures, and other promotional venues. The above-mentioned organizations aren’t even mentioned in DPW materials as “waste diversion” options.
The Austin DPW webpage mentioned above, while not perfect, is a start.
11. Utilize farmers markets and libraries as a staging point for special collections programs. Farmers markets can be good events to leverage for special collections also. New York City does this extensively for compost collection, collection of clothing and textiles and hazardous and e-cycling collections. For example farmers markets in densely populated areas, (Dupont Circle, Mt. Pleasant, Columbia Heights, U Street, etc.) would be great places to pilot compost collection for residents from MFR properties.
Currently some small businesses like Compost Cab collect compost from individual households on a fee basis. But this could be scaled up significantly by utilizing farmers markets as collection points for composting and other special waste collection programs.
Libraries could also be a potential site for the collection of textiles and e-goods.
12. Waste receptacles in the public space should be used as vehicles for messaging on solid waste matters. This can help increase participation rates.
13. DPW should develop a recyclables collection program for public spaces. “Windshield surveys” of the composition of items deposited in trash cans placed in the public space indicate that 50% or more of the volume is recyclable or otherwise divertible.
Currently, some of the city’s Business Improvement Districts provide separate cans for collection of recyclables, but this is not a standard city practice outside of special service districts. (NYC provides separate cans for bottles/cans and paper/cardboard.) DPW should develop a program comparable to New York City’s.
14. DPW should work with DPR and DGS to develop a systematic recyclables collection program for public park spaces. [Some parks and recreation centers have some recycling bins, both inside and on the grounds.]
15. DPW should exhibit at festivals to improve resident understanding, commitment to, and participation within the city’s Solid Waste Management agenda. Some city agencies exhibit at festivals to communicate their message. DDOE is quite active in this arena and dc water provides misting tents and water dispensing trucks—promoting the “Tap It” drinking water vs. bottled water initiative. While DPW has an active direct mail program, some resources should be shifted to face-to-face programs.
[The Clean City unit of DPW and the outreach unit of the DC Department of Energy and the Environment have a heavy exhibiting program at festivals, but there isn't a strong focus on household waste diversion, especially compared to how Montgomery County's DPW exhibits at the Montgomery County Agriculture Fair and other venues.]
16. Develop a program to try to divert from the waste stream reusable materials that are “dumped” directly by people who travel to the city’s transfer stations. Sorting programs with areas for divertible items could be created.
Develop an informational brochure on diversion that could be distributed to vehicle operators as they line up for access to the transfer station.
17. Develop programs and initiatives to improve recycling and waste diversion rates on the part of commercial properties, businesses, and organizations. Participation in the SmarterDC Challenge is voluntary and won’t necessarily be enough. Identify business categories with great opportunity for improvement and introduce programs to help them address those issues which hinder their ability to reduce their generation of waste as opposed to recycling, composting, and diversion.
18. Develop outreach programs with commercial haulers to improve recycling and waste diversion rates.
19. Pilot composting programs should be developed for restaurants, food service operations, supermarkets and grocery stores. Note that according to the survey used for the “Strategic Road Map for Solid Waste Management” process, this is being considered by DPW already.
[Somewhat related and renumbered, this originally was point 16.]
21. Adopt the Keep Australia Beautiful Litter Survey instrument and develop baseline data for neighborhoods and commercial districts. Use the information collected to shape litter interdiction programs. (The KAB survey form is more detailed than similar instruments used in the US.)