Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Haste makes waste: commingling trash and recycling vs. sustainability and core values

Core values are an organization's guiding principles, defining and shaping culture, how people make decisions, and act.

Many DC residents have been complaining about delays in the pick up of trash and recycling, as DPW crews have found it hard to collect in areas where snow and ice conditions make maneuvering large and heavy garbage trucks difficult and dangerous.

Someone on the ANC6A neighborhood e-list made a good suggestion, that when it is difficult to maneuver in alleys, collection should shift to the street.

In response to what mostly is whining (it's not like the problems with snow and ice aren't evident), Mayor Bowser announced a "All Hands on Deck" initiative, where DPW personnel will be out collecting trash all weekend in those areas where collections were missed.

It's to show "resolve" and action, but has a downside as according to the city's press release:
Due to public health concerns, crews will co-mingle trash and recycling to ensure that all cans are emptied as quickly as possible.
In order to pick up trash expeditiously, DPW will treat recyclables as trash.

The cans are reasonably well secured, so public health concerns are minimal.

Trashing recyclables is a  negative way to demonstrate the city's commitment to "sustainability," another example of the city setting practices at levels far below the state of best practice exhibited by other major cities ("Realizing all aspects of Sustainable DC"), and is an example of the lack of the existence of a strong set of values about how to perform governmental duties.

Trashed waste collection cans at the Fort Totten Transfer Station.  Photo by Theresa Ahmann.

Sadly this decision demonstrates consistency for good or bad in decision making between the Gray and Bowser Administrations.

Criticized for delays in picking up the old solid waste collection bins that the city made obsolete by providing new ones, the containers--made of plastic and eminently recyclable albeit with some difficulties--were also tossed in the trash ("D.C. said it was recycling — it wasn’t. Nearly 53 tons of plastic trash cans sent to landfill," Post).

At least they ended up being converted into electricity for Fairfax County ("D.C.'s trash is now Fairfax facility's treasured commodity," Post).

From the past blog entry:

When you aim to change, being behind can be an opportunity

DC, having a lot of park land (most of it under federal control), a decent transit system, being urban so it uses less energy per capita than suburban jurisdictions, and with a high rate of trips by sustainable means, does rank highly, number eight, on the list of North American's Greenest Cities, according to the Green City Index compiled by the Economic Intelligence Unit for the German systems corporation Siemens.

But I would argue that much of this, other than the green building effort, is the result of legacy decisions made as long ago as 1790, starting with the walkable and transit-centric urban design of the core of the city by Pierre L'Enfant.

And the Green Building effort is mostly the function of current construction and development marketing practices, and the fact that DC experienced a great deal of new construction over the past 15 years.

But what about practices that the city needs to engage in now?

If DC truly wants to be "the healthiest, greenest, and most livable city" in the US, North America, or the world, it has to set high standards and expectations for a wide range of decisions on matters big (cleaning up the Anacostia River) and small (dealing with solid waste collection and management), etc.

But for being behind to be an opportunity, going forward policies and practices have to achieve at a much higher bar.

The current state of the city's "public health" is not so dire that treating recyclables as trash is an acceptable decision.

I can't imagine one of the European Union's Green Capitals--this year it's Bristol--making the same decision.

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At 8:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Recycling effectiveness is not or should not be measured by how often trash is picked up for houses with alleys. Recycling effectiveness (truth in recycling if you will) in this city needs to be measured by the last stage. Has the stuff really been recycled? No journalist or blogger really looks into this (anymore) so we don't know. Having walked to Ft Totten many times, and spent some time there - as opposed to dumping and quickly driving off - I am a bit dubious of the integrity of the process. But I don't really know much for sure. I do know the stuff is taken to Pennsylvania and recycled by prisoners, or some component of it is.

Also, there was no discussion at all about the majority of people who live in this city (the greater number of people): those who live in apartment buildings. No longer do commercial entities (ie apartments and businesses) have to submit a recylcing plan to DDOE. Did you know this? Do you think Starbucks recycles? Have you observed how recycling functions inside a Starbucks? How in the world can we have effective recycling in Washington, DC under these conditions? We can't. We don't. We are far from a green city.


At 4:38 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I do know that the city does a piss poor job dealing with recycling in commercial and multiunit buildings, and with businesses -- e.g., Starbucks use to have good recycling containers and switched to a mixed container with three sections and most people deposit trash in all three.

I think the commercial office buildings generally do a good job at the disposal level. Whether or not the average office is good about it is another question.

And I don't know about multiunits.
You raise a good point about Ft. Totten. My joke about it on the inside reminds me of the opening sequence in the Terminator when the people are underground...

I don't know how the recyclables are combined for transfer to the recycling facility. It's possible that the city messes it up. I don't know if the disposal fee for recycling is more than the cost at Fairfax's waste to energy facility.

2. there are other better examples, e.g., NYC, SF, Seattle, Portland, Montgomery County in doing waste diversion and collection and dealing with building types beyond SFH.

At 5:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks. Even back when Starbucks may have had containers, that's just the front-end of things, the public face of recycling. So yeah, we have to get behind the scenes and see if the loop is closed. No one really knows for sure, but we all sure talk a good game.

The thing about DC is that the only publicly-financed recycling is for those who live in houses - DPW picks it up. The rest is considered commercial and is not supported by the city. Aside from office buildings and businesses (stores, etc), it is an effort that is entirely at the mercy of residents, but more often and more likely, management companies. We are talking about the majority of waste collected in DC! so it's very critical to focus on it. But the city pretty much lets it slide on by. There are three inspectors for the city, they are almost exclusively focusing on businesses and not apartment and condos. The lack of curiosity is fairly astounding if you ask me ! It's one of those things we just put a good face on, say some absolutely meaningless words, and then walk away.

Yes, office buildings famously do a good job - corporate social responsibility and all. I used to bring in my stuff to work and recycle it there. But again, who really knows what the end point is.

Can you point to any recent articles or studies about recycling in DC, with some meaningful data (where's big data when we need it?)?

Neither can I.

At 7:40 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... well, it's another reason why we need another Center for Washington Studies--an old think tank. GWU had one, but it was more focused on real estate.

It's a good question for DCEN, the DC Environmental Network, which I haven't paid much attention to for many years.

One of the great things about NYC is all their various interest and advocacy groups which push the envelope.

Here things are a bit too cozy. And it's so hard to be a critic here, it mostly puts you on the outside. I joke that what I call critical analysis, most govt. officials consider to be "personal criticism."

At 9:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

LOL - you nailed it. Everyone is pretty focused on their careers and is dedicated to inoculating themselves against anything that they *perceive* can derail their track to the future. This precludes imagination and thoughtfulness in too many cases. Well, all this is IMHO, that is.

What's also funny is the large number of residents here in the city not just with advanced degrees, but advanced degrees in the environmental sciences. You would never guess. Thought geared to civic action and conservation are not in any meaningful way tied to the degree one has, it would seem.

I fear that initiatives like recycling are to the larger political and economic picture what soccer is to sports: kids' activities. This is when your environmental-degreed parents come in handy, because THEIR kids will bring recycling - but only to their school, and then it's on to college and forget about past efforts. It's fairly trivialized, in other words.

At 10:53 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

well, I suppose that's why I write about composting and yard waste, and differentiating solid waste collection policies between the core and the outer city because such pracdtices take solid waste collection and interdiction to the next level.

In specific, composting is what separates the average waste collection system from above average.

But then there are the European examples as well, in terms of product design and manufacture of items in ways that focus on their ultimate recovery.

Or national regulations/standards about use of particular product materials. E.g., if you can't recycle it, it's not used, like styrofoam.

As it is, it bugs me that packaging materials for food stuffs aren't required to list whether or not they are compostable. (Many items have thin plastic films as part of the packaging.) Or even that the stickers used to identify produce aren't required to be biodegradable (you have to pick them off before tossing them into your compost pile).

You mentioned Ft. Totten. Obviously if you ever go by there (for me, I ride up that way reasonably frequently), looking at what's in the back of trucks and such, it's clear that a lot more materials can be recovered.

Recently, I wrote about how NYC utilizes farmers markets as staging points for composting, clothes recycling, and electronics recycling.

2. I think that recycling doesn't have to be the equivalent of soccer if it were moved to extremely high recovery rates, and if there was a significant focus on material use reduction.

I hate to use our household as an example, but we do compost food scraps and yard waste and we recycle at high levels (well, me more than Suzanne, but I pick recyclables out of our "trash" as necessary) to the point where we generate on average very little "trash", maybe 20 gallons of trash (loosely packed) in an average month.

3. So if you do everything possible to reduce the waste stream, at that point, it's reasonable maybe to have the remainder go in a waste to energy plant.

But we have so far to go to get to that point.

At 11:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, recycling doesn't have to be the equivalent of soccer. But it is, for many reasons. One time our condo manager said there's no money in cardboard, at that particular time. The market for it goes up and down, mostly down it seems. Obviously, we just waste so much here, it's our mindset among other things, and we still are a rich nation, and rich countries waste a whole lot of stuff. Some may even go so far as to say, that waste is the definition of rich. It's fine to use your household as an example - personally I love to read this kind of stuff - the only downside is that you are not really representative because you live in a house. I'm talking when it comes to recycling issues. The real challenge in this city, as I have said, is recycling for apartment buildings. I live in one, and I too compost. It's fun, and gives great humus.

But, I'm not sure I recycle. Sure, I go through the motion of dumping my 1 and 2 plastics in the little bin, but that's about it. Is that recycling? Uh, no. Our bins out back are a total disaster - everything co-mingled. The janitor says it doesn't matter.

At 6:52 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

well, sf housing does matter because most households could probably increase their waste diversion by 100 to 1000 percent. Granted we are only two people, but it demonstrates what's possible.

wrt multiunit, it'd be worth finding out what are the best practice jurisdictions. One is NYC. I notice MoCo has a big program too.

Because I pick up recyclables as I walk (and sometimes when I bike, especially if they are glass) and toss them in recycling bins, there are a few multiunit building trash areas with which I am familiar. Judging by what I see, there is a lot of recyclable material going into the trash.

At 9:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It may be worth it to see who is doing it right only to see what are the different factors. For instance, DO people and/or families in single family houses recycle more effectively than apartment buildings?

But really - no. Because I go back to my original point which can't be ignored: to ask anything about any recycling program, you need to start at the end, not the beginning. Not enough tough questions are being asked of those that are failing to effectively recycle, and IMO, hopping about to different jurisdictions is a distraction. Interesting, entertaining yes, but beside the point. As far as I can tell, there is nothing wrong with our plan - except for apartment buildings. What is lacking is the will, the level of seriousness of thought. And enforcement.

Not sure I said anything was wrong with SFH (individual resident footprint is likely larger), what I meant was that more people in this city live in apartments than houses, so you are not representative in terms of our recycling efforts. You are being catered to with a better program while we are likely not recycling at all. You know who does your recycling, you have someone to call. For us, it's all pretty much a mystery.

Big big differences in efforts. Not enough residents know this.

At 9:17 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

as not an apartment dweller, thank you for cluing me into this. I don't get into the trash collecting areas of such buildings very often when they are inside--except when installing bike rooms--and these tend to be condo buildings.

I wonder if there is a difference in recycling participation rates between apartments and condos?

At 9:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aaargh. That is the point I have been trying to make with all my posts! There is a difference. As I say, we in apartments do not even know if we are recycling. I highly doubt it. You in houses know a whole lot more about the process than we do. DPW vs private contractors. No doubt DPW has private contractors, but they also have accountability because they are contractually tied to the government.

And....sigh, when I say that about your not being an apartment dweller, I hope I was clear (but fear I was not) that I am trying to point out the major point about recyclables: most are generated by non house owners and as such that is where the focus needs to be. Talk about recycling for house owners till the cows come home, it's not where the problem lies.

At 12:05 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

I don't think you're right about the per capita generation of trash and recycling by apartment dwellers in cities. At least in _Green Metropolis_, using NYC as an example, David Owen argues that it is less compared to SFH.

That's certainly true of per capita energy use.

But one of the issues would be big buildings vs. garden style (campus) apartments.

In any case, it's worth further study. I'll do another entry, sparked by this point.

Basically I would argue we need programs for:

- SFH attached
- SFH detached (especially yard waste)
- Multiunit (with extra programming for itinerant -- rental) housing
- commercial buildings, at three scales, the property managers, the tenant facility managers, and the employees
- other institutional properties (schools etc.) at the building and campus scales
- public spaces in commercial districts
- public spaces in parks
- other public spaces

+ education systems.

At 12:24 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Some links:

(The FT has a better explanation but very gated)

It is an incentive problem. Goverments have to do EPA required percentages of recycling. But most recycling (metal, HDPE aside) are money sucks. You can mandate private building recycle but it is all being burned or landfilled.

At 12:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm not sure if I am making any impact at all. (When I make statements about recycling, please understand that I am talking about the city I live in, Washington, DC. I know it pretty well.)

You said: " don't think you're right about the per capita generation of trash"

Go back and read what I said. I said likely individual *footprints* are higher. I did not say anything about trash.

Without a doubt - as I am now saying for the 5th or 6th time - house dwellers recycle a trillion times better and more ***IN WASHINGTON DC**** than apartment dwellers BECAUSE... they recycle, period. And likely apartment dwellers ARE NOT RECYCLING. I never said house owners do a worse job. Again - whole point is that the problem with recycling IN THIS CITY is not with house owners. It is that there is no good plan or enforcement with apartments (and businesses/stores).

Sure, yard waste. I'm all for it. Go for it. But again, what does that do about the majority of the problem in DC (apartments and stores)? Nothing. Focus on the Real Problems first. You are focusing on yard waste most likely because you live in a house (parking lot approach to science! we look at what we know). Perhaps I am doing the same, but as I believe there are MORE PEOPLE who live in apartments and apartments are most likely NOT RECYCLING, I therefore conclude that the greater problem lies with apartments and not really yard waste and single family houses.

Bill Howland would LOVE this discussion because it absolves him/the city/DPW of so much responsibility. He would like nothing more than to talk about houses and yard waste all day long. That is, in comparison, a golden success story. Houses and yard waste are do-able problems, fixable. Within their scope. Who's gonna tackle stores and apartments?

About parks - whole other discussion. DPW is awful in the parks, by and large. But, whole other discussion.

Look at where the biggest problem is, first. Otherwise, IMO, I believe we are boutique-izing real urban issues.


At 2:17 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I understand the point you're making, don't worry. Just making the point that the ecological footprint _per capita_ of multiunit dwellers is not as great as you make it out to be.


HOWEVER, because of the volume of multiunit dwellers, it's a great opportunity to have multiplicative effect.

At 2:20 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Charlie -- one of the scary responses to landfill's filling up is a focus on building waste to energy plants. Harrisburg and other places show us that can be problematic. Fairfax has one and that's where the city's trash goes. If DC owned one, it would reduce the desire to divert/reduce/recycle.

But Lancaster shows the facilities can be run profitably (e.g., they bought Harrisburg's).

At 2:23 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Also anon, some of this thread has been picked up as part of an email discussion with appropriate government officials (not with DPW) and sheds light on the opportunity for hearings and getting DDOE involved in resetting the discussion and agenda.

As Charlie points out, because DC isn't a real state, we haven't set standards for waste diversion in the same way that say New York State or Maryland impose requirements on counties and other subjurisdictions.

That's what drives MoCo for example, state requirements. But also state support. E.g., they have a regional composting facility that serves multiple counties.

DC skates around this.

CM Cheh might hold a hearing on this and related topics. It will be a chance to bring up these issues.

At 2:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You said: understand the point you're making, don't worry. Just making the point that the ecological footprint _per capita_ of multiunit dwellers is not as great as you make it out to be.

what I said about the footprint difference: (individual resident footprint is likely larger)

Not sure how you glean from what I said that I think the per capita footprint difference is "great." I do think it is larger in houses just from energy use. But how much larger, I really can't say. It varies.

Well good news if "some" of the thread has been picked up and something can be done, but as they say, hope springs eternal. We will see what is the difference-maker. My feeling is that it will take someone or people who live in apartment buildings to make a sustained, committed, intelligent, focused stink, but in this liberal city of enviros, that probably won't happen. We seem to be really good at not seeing what is right in front of us.

The more you get involved in investigating recycling in this city, the more frustrating and time-consuming (FOIAs and so on) it will become. But most things worth doing are like that.

I'd also like to respond to Charlie and say that there is a very good market for glass.

At 6:26 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Not sure on the state requirements. Off the top of my head, DC would be mandated with other states on the Solid Waste Dispoal Act. 25%? In the UK now at 50%

Unclear if federal office buildings and embassies have to comply.

Also, was under the assumption DC did use the WTE facility. Clearly the private haulers do. I am usually in favor of WTE. It is very European.

What i am trying to say in reality multiunit would be the low hanging fruit, but the regulatory regime such as it it makes it ineffictive to go after. Better to go after houses. You can just treat multuunit as a source of fines.

At 6:56 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

yes, regular epa requirements probably apply. wrt WTE I just mean that it should be "last resort," after attempts to recycle, divert, reduce, compost, etc. have been exhausted. And yep, DC uses. Last I knew we got a slight discount on the tipping fee.


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