Wasting and Recycling in Washington, D.C.

Date: 24 Oct 2019 | posted in: Waste to Wealth | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail


Cost of Recycling
Trash Transfer Stations
Garbage Incineration
Good Jobs from Repair and Reuse


Recycling has increased in Washington, D.C. from 20 to 30 percent in the last few years and we can expect this trend to continue given the emerging impacts of the 2014 Reform Act passed through City Council Member Cheh’s committee. This is good news.

At the same time the city faces serious problems with regard to its overall solid waste and recycling management system. These challenges also offer opportunities to reduce cost, generate revenue generating and create new enterprises and jobs for those who need them the most in our city.

The cost of recycling has soared in recent years from $75 to $122 per ton to recycle plus a $25 surcharge for glass, which is 20 percent of the recycling stream. Proven cost reduction remedies are at hand despite the cut off of markets by China.

The city’s public trash transfer stations are subsidizing private haulers by not charging rates that meet the actual cost of operations. The deepest subsidies go to waste hauling behemoths. The total subsidy may add up to tens of millions of dollars.

The city continues to incinerate its trash, which directly and profoundly impacts the public’s health. In Baltimore, a city about the size of D.C., the public and private cost of the incinerator is estimated at $55 million in emergency room visits for asthma and long term illnesses such as cancer, heart and lung disease. D.C. citizens are now breathing air polluted from the Lorton, VA garbage incinerator where D.C. sends its waste. The old incinerator annually emits hundreds of pounds of lead, mercury, dioxin, particulates and more.

The city’s waste policy ignores the most economically and socially valuable components – reusable and repairable items. When repaired in small workshops they provide middle class jobs for unskilled and underemployed workers and reduce recidivism among workers with prison records. They are useful for STEM education. Reuse and repair of electronic scrap has proven beneficial to the social development of youth and adults.  Reuse changes lives and cities. This issue is not a solid waste or recycling decision. This is common sense.

Public discussion is essential to sensible decision-making. This series of articles is intended to inform and stimulate public discussion.

Cost of Recycling

In the last five years the city has made significant progress in developing a modern wasting and recycling system that aims to reduce the waste stream by 80 percent by 2030. The current residential recycling rate is about 30% after being stuck at 20 percent for many years. (Data on commercial sector recycling is not yet available.) This is good news as D.C.’s recycling program has seen rough times even after City Council Member Nadine Winter in 1990 successful sponsorship Winter sponsored a law that required all residents to recycle.

The 2014 Solid Waste Management Reform Act, which sets the recycling 2030 goal, also requires private sector haulers to report data essential for future planning, requires the Department of Public Works, DPW, to plan and implement a household organics collection program, and to undertake a pilot project to determine the feasibility of unit pricing for garbage collection (a system that requires residents to pay based on how much they throw away and has led to a 40 percent reduction in waste through source reduction, recycling, and composting in other cities.)

City Councilmember Mary Cheh, chair of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, skillfully maneuvered the law through the Council with critical input and support from the local environmental community. Subsequently, the DPW has implemented a food scrap drop-off program via farmers markets in all 8 wards (Compost Cab is the contractor), completed a compost feasibility study for curbside collection and in-city processing capacity, and is poised to initiate the Home Composting Incentives Amendment Act (a separate bill Councilmember Cheh introduced and passed in 2018). This latter Act provides rebates up to $75 for residents to purchase an approved home composting system and requires DPW to offer in-person home composting workshops, which residents would need to complete in order to qualify for the rebate. (Note: ILSR recently won the DPW competitive bid to provide these trainings and oversee the rebate program.) The compost feasibility study identified trucks, staffing, startup capital costs, and the need for one or more city located sites for composting organic waste – food discards, yard trimmings, and soiled paper (such as greasy pizza and hamburger wrappers). In addition, DPW steps taken in composting, the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation operates the Community Compost Cooperative Network with 56 sites located in all eight city Wards. By joining this largely volunteer-managed network, citizens learn how to compost and earn the right to drop off their food scraps at specific sites.

The DPW has issued an RFP for the unit pricing pilot program, which will inform the roll out of a citywide program.

Mayor Bowser has advanced the law by appointing excellent DPW directors, who in turn brought together a highly professional and committed staff. Most recently, DPW staff volunteered to successfully pilot a ‘tagging’ program that reminds households how to reduce contamination of recyclables set out for curbside collection. This reduced contamination by 20 percent. The program will be continued citywide.

The DPW has opened up talks with major glass recycling companies that want the city’s glass. Their processing plants – which supply the bottling, abrasive, insulation, and construction industries – currently cannot get enough material to meet demand. While other cities foolishly drop glass recycling (20 percent of the recycling stream), D.C. is committed to recycle this material.

There is public momentum to continue this progress even as major challenges remain. The DPW through the work of the D.C. Environmental Network has established a citizen advisory committee that meets with the DPW quarterly to assist in addressing pressing issues.

Happily, times have changed and recycling is now a permanent part of city life; the DPW and organized citizens are primed to improve the system.

But structural problems persist.

Recycling had a rough start in the 1990s when the city twice cancelled recycling programs only to be reinstated by citizen organizing, including tactics such as dumping of materials at the door of the D.C. government offices and Mayor Barry’s home. Another major setback occurred in the 1990s when the DPW switched from dual-stream recycling (keeping paper separate from other materials as done in Montgomery County, Maryland) to single-stream recycling (mixing all the materials together) and contracted with WMI Inc. to process mixed recyclables. This closed down an in-town dual-stream facility and its 20 workers. Recyclables are now sent 24 miles out of town, at the city’s expense, for processing; resulting in fees of $122 per ton for recycling and a $25 per ton surcharge for glass. Further the processing is not efficient. Glass is not recovered for glass markets even as regional glass companies are clamoring for the material in order to stave off worker layoffs. The glass is so contaminated that it can only be used for landfill cover and WMI’s landfill roadways. Film plastic also cannot be recovered.

Single-stream processing can work. For example, Boulder, Colorado and the Twin Cities, Minnesota have efficient systems that recover glass. Their systems range from 300 to 400 tons per day capacity. The WMI facility used by D.C. is 900 to 1,000 tons per day and is over-sized. Further, WMI does not make money on recycling, but makes healthy profits from landfilling, a direct conflict of interest.

Costs can come down. And glass can be recovered.

The city needs a processing facility that can recover materials economically. It can build its own facility and work with end markets to meet industry specifications for long-term access to markets. Contracts with minimum floor prices will guarantee that D.C.’s materials will flow to markets despite national and international disruptions such as we have seen in the past two years. Alternatively, the city could contract for processing its materials at a private facilities located close to the city.

A new single-stream processing capacity is due to come on line in early 2020 just one mile from the District. Switching to such a plant would save transportation costs and potentially improve recovery of all materials. The District will issue bids for its processing contract later in 2019.

The city can further reduce the cost of recycling by switching to once every two weeks collection of recyclables. D.C.’s large recycling carts allow for households to keep their recyclables an extra week. Another strategy is to transition to specialized co-collection vehicles that can collect recyclables and waste in one pass.

The need to localize is imperative for lowering the District’s cost of recycling.Right now it costs about twice as much to recycle materials as it does to burn garbage in Lorton, Virginia.

Trash Transfer Stations

In 1995, ILSR issued a report for Councilmember Harry Thomas, Sr. underscoring the critical importance of the two city owned transfer stations on Benning Road and Fort Totten in NE, D.C. Proper management of the facilities could secure long-term funding for investment in recycling as well as provide a steady source of revenue for maintenance of these facilities. In short, these public facilities could become a ‘cash cow’ for the city’s solid waste and recycling programs. But the facilities were dilapidated as a result of disinvestment in maintenance and modern equipment by the previous administrations. The system used a double hydraulic system in which garbage was pushed from one compaction unit to another before loaded onto a transfer trailer to haul waste out of the city. The system was notoriously inefficient. Equipment was down 25 percent of the time.

Mayor Williams (1999-2007) and former City Council Chair Carol Schwartz secured funds for modernization of the failing transfer facilities as well as the purchase of an entire fleet of modern collection vehicles. Prior to this infusion of funds, the DPW did not have the 45 trucks needed to cover daily routes for garbage or recycling collection. The effort was tied to closing down private transfer stations that popped up right in the middle of residential and commercial neighborhoods. The D.C. Coliseum became a vast transfer station for the city’s private hauler. The truck traffic, emissions, stink, and vermin inundated residential neighborhoods, destroying real estate values. The city had no laws preventing this and the private sector took advantage of this vacuum.

Confident that the trash transfer stations would be modernized, Williams made a deal, suggested by ILSR, that the private facilities be closed in exchange for the haulers to use the rebuilt public transfer stations. The deal was struck. The rogue trash transfer stations were closed in due course. But the city’s deal with the giant hauling companies went awry. The city gave these companies decades long contracts at well below market rates (less than the actual cost of processing their materials). Today, for example, it costs the city about $30 to process waste through the facilities but these companies pay just over $10 per ton. Waste Management, Inc. and Republic take additional advantage of the city’s artificially low tipping fees by bringing in estimated 300 to 500 tons daily from their suburban routes in Maryland and Virginia. This causes excessive wear and tear of roads and bridges as well as excessive amounts of diesel emissions. D.C. taxpayers bear these costs and have been footing this bill for close to two decades. The long-term subsidy could amount to tens of millions of dollars.

These contracts should not be renewed. One of the contracts does not end until 2022 but the other one could have been terminated if the District on or before September 30, 2019 gave notice. For reasons unknown the City Administrator did not issue this notice, allowing the contract to roll over for another year. The contract now expires December 2020. The contract can be extended again through 2022. The public needs an immediate explanation.

Instead of bringing down the cost of managing waste for the city, the transfer stations subsidize the private wasting sector.

A full cost accounting of this misadventure should be documented as a lesson to future administrators. By setting proper market rates for the private sector use of the two transfer stations, the city could secure a permanent revenue flow to assure proper maintenance and upgrades of these economically invaluable facilities.


Over a hundred thousand tons of D.C.’s non-recycled, non-composted waste goes to an incinerator in Lorton, Virginia, at a cost of $60 per ton. The tip fee may be reasonable but the consequences are not. The facility is the leading source of pollution in the D.C. metro area. Hundreds of pounds of lead, mercury, and dioxin are released into our air. Exposure to high levels of lead may cause anemia, weakness, and kidney and brain damage. Very high lead exposure can cause death. Gases such as hydrogen chloride, nitrogen oxide and pollution-laden particles threaten the young, elderly and infirm. These illnesses are costly. The Baltimore Clean Air Act was unanimously passed by the Baltimore City Council to stop any incineration that does not have state-of-the-art pollution control, in large part, because of lengthy testimony from city officials and health advocacy organizations pointing to the annual impacts of emergency visits to hospitals for asthma sufferers. (A 2017 study commissioned by the Chesapeake Bay Fund found that the Baltimore incinerator causes an estimated $55 million annually in health problems.)

Mike Ewall of the D.C.-based Energy Justice Network points out that trucking waste to southern Virginia landfills costs the same as incineration and pollutes far less. Doing so would give the city flexibility and an incentive to invest in composting, and thus reduce pollution from landfilling D.C.’s waste will decrease; wet food waste in a landfill contributes to leachate, a chemical soup, and to emissions of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas, as it breaks down in the anaerobic oxygen-starved conditions of landfills.

D.C. citizens would not tolerate garbage in their streets. Yet they have to live with the ‘landfill in the sky’ created by incineration. D.C. should stop burning its garbage.

Good Jobs from Repair and Reuse

The city needs good jobs for hard-to-employ citizens such as unskilled veterans, the formerly incarcerated, and school dropouts. Electronic scrap repair and reuse and building deconstruction to recover valuable building materials provide these jobs. Companies train workers, pay good wages with health benefits. The jobs are interesting and reduce recidivism, which plagues U.S. cities and towns. In Indianapolis, one electronic scrap company has a recidivism rate of its workers who are returning citizens of 25%. The national average is 76%. In Baltimore, building deconstruction companies have reduced recidivism among its formerly incarcerated workers to zero! Baltimore based companies are deconstructing houses in D.C., but there is no program to promote or provide incentives for building deconstruction as in Baltimore.

Unfortunately, D.C.’s electronic scrap (e-scrap) program gives all the electronic scrap to corporate giants, which ship the materials out of town for shredding to recover metals. The social benefits of reuse of e-scrap cannot be captured. The Department of Energy and the Environment, which oversees this program, should change this practice. It should require that reusable machines be made available to small businesses for repair, scavenging of working parts and valuable alloys. By making repaired, yet powerful machines available for pennies on the dollar, D.C. can bridge the digital divide among low-income residents and their organizations.

At the same time hundreds of good jobs for trained workers will be created in textile, appliance, furniture, mattress and used book enterprises. The dean of this sector is Saint Vincent De Paul (SVDP) of Lane County, Oregon, which has established 600 good jobs on the West Coast ranging from Portland to San Francisco. Trucks deliver repaired goods to cities and pick up products for repair to bring back to their workshops in Eugene: appliances, textiles, books, cars, furniture, and mattresses. Under grants from national foundations, SVDP has established 10 companies on the East Coast ranging from Massachusetts to Florida. The company is looking for partners to establish enterprises in D.C. and Baltimore to complete its logistical efficiency. Nonprofit groups in Baltimore are already negotiating with SVDP to become a reuse center. One warehouse can be home to these reuse enterprises. SVDP earns over $1 million annually from repair and resale, which supports its extensive social service programs. In Lane County, SVDP thrift stores help lower the cost of living for low-income residents.


Despite the headlines that declare that ‘recycling is dead’ because of the Chinese policy that cut off U.S. contaminated loads of recyclables in 2018, clean U.S. recyclables are in demand. Chinese companies are leading the scramble for these materials and are building or acquiring plastic, paper and e-scrap plants to capture these materials and send them back to their home country. There is more investment in recycling in the U.S. than ever before; fueled by a scramble by U.S., Chinese, and Spanish companies, among others, to get control of the valuable materials in the US waste stream. If D.C. can deliver clean recyclable materials, there are ready domestic and overseas markets. One third of the city’s waste stream can be processed into compost that has a steady year round steady market within the D.C. metro area.


D.C.’s solid waste and recycling management system must address chronic structural problems in order to reduce pollution stemming from garbage incineration, stop the hemorrhaging of money at D.C. owned transfer stations and use the resources flowing through the waste stream to create meaningful jobs and social change. These goals can be achieved if the city continues to move in the right direction and correct long-term shortcomings. Citizens need to be involved in these decisions. Agencies, legislators, and advocates can make our city the nation’s recycling capital in 3-5 years.  

Next Steps to Restructure D.C.’s Waste and Recycling Systems

  • Contracts with national waste haulers for use of D.C. transfer stations must be restructured
  • Contractor for processing recyclables must be changed
  • Stop feeding D.C.’s waste to incineration
  • E Scrap programs should benefit D.C. residents not corporations
  • The market wants D.C. to deliver clean recyclable materials
  • Undertake unit pricing (Pay As You Throw) pilot program
  • Continue to invest in composting


Avatar photo
Follow Neil Seldman:
Neil Seldman

Neil Seldman, Ph.D, directs the Waste to Wealth Initiative. He specializes in helping cities and businesses recover increasing amounts of materials from the waste stream and add value to the local economy through new processing and manufacturing facilities. He is a co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.