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COMMENTARY
D.C. faces a recycling crisis
(Published October 20, 2003)

By NEIL SELDMAN

Recycling has been required of households, businesses, and government and private office buildings in the District of Columbia since l988. In the same time frame, comparable cities across the United States have reached 40 percent and even 50 percent recycling levels.

In the past two decades, however, the District has had a tortured experience with recycling. The program was dropped twice under previous administrations. If it were not for the insistence of Mayor Anthony Williams and D.C. City Council member Carol Schwartz, recycling would have been ended yet a third time in 2003. The mayor overruled his cabinet officials, who wanted to cut the program in the face of a $390 million budget deficit. Councilwoman Schwartz used her budgetary skills to maintain the program and even undertake a bold, and ultimately successful, pilot program. She also secured funds for the citywide application of this program in the 2004 budget.

Despite a well-publicized settlement of a lawsuit in 2002 by the D.C. chapter of the Sierra Club to force the city to obey its own law, the city’s recycling rate is 13 percent for household waste, minus the
unknown non-recyclable materials that are placed in the recycling bins. Commercial recycling rate is estimated at 11 percent. The city’s office building recycling rate is 6 percent.

The D.C. public school system refuses to implement recycling, even though 70 percent of its waste is easy-to-recycle paper, and it costs more to manage paper as waste than as a recycled material. Ironically, the public schools’ waste hauler has no problem with recycling instead of disposal. The company already cooperates with the few individual public schools that have recycling programs due to their own initiative.

The net result is more costs for taxpayers. Until a recycling program reaches 25 percent levels, it increases the overall costs of solid waste management. At 25 percent recycling, a garbage truck and crew could serve 750 households per daily route, instead of 600. This means that entire routes can be eliminated, yielding significant savings. New York City recently learned this lesson. When faced with a budget deficit, it stopped recycling all materials except paper. However, by putting these materials back into the disposal system, it cost the city $15 million more. New York quickly reinstated its recycling program.

Recycling service in D.C. is so bad that the Department of Public Works operators are overwhelmed with passionate complaints. So, too, are D.C. City Council members Jim Graham and Adrian Fenty. "Bins are left for weeks without collection," remarked Fenty. "People get angry and they stop recycling."
The city’s contract with Waste Management calls for payments based on the amount of materials recycled. "Can’t we find a company that wants to make money?" Graham remarked. Apparently not. According to DPW officials, the only company to bid on a new recycling contract is
Waste Management.

DPW actually has a promising plan for the future of recycling: use city trucks and city workers instead of contracting out. This summer a pilot program proved effective. Workers used standard trucks to
mechanically pick up 95 gallon carts. Workers no longer have to bend down and lift the old bins hundreds of times a day. Routes are handled quicker and workers’ careers are extended. Costly injuries and absenteeism are down. The pilot route data showed that recycling participation went from 17 percent to 46 percent and that per household recycling went from 1.5 lbs. to 6.5 lbs. The pilot was approved by a joint labor-management task force created by the mayor and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union.

If these numbers were to apply to all 100,000 households in the city, the recycling rate would soar above 25 percent almost immediately, allowing the city to realize significant savings. The city’s 2004 budget has funds for the purchase of additional carts and trucks and workers so that the
city can extend the program citywide.

In-school education and public awareness are essential if the system is to work in order to avoid contamination of the recycle stream with waste. The dilemma now is what to do with the recycling program between now and when the new trucks, carts and workers are available in 2004-2005. The
city’s contract with Waste Management is about to run out. Waste Management is the only company to bid on the new contract and they are asking for over $6 million annually, more than double the current cost.

Council members Schwartz, Fenty and Graham have stated their opposition to granting the company another contract. What are the city’s options?

Recycling is popular in D.C. and it can be highly cost-effective. The six-step program can bring the city to 50 percent recycling and move the city from waste management to resource management .

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Neil Seldman, president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, has provided technical assistance to Mayor Williams on waste transfer station policy and serves on the Environmental Planning
Commission, appointed by D.C. City Council member Carol Schwartz.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator