No waste in Washington? For the city's trash, it could be a reality
Waste Dive spoke with DPW Director Christopher Shorter about the District's major waste management overhaul.
Big changes are coming to Washington, D.C. this year in more ways than one.
Following the Sustainable Solid Waste Management Act of 2014, the city has set a goal of diverting 80% of its waste. The D.C. Department of Public Works (DPW) recently released its first annual report on where the system stands. Through the creation of an Office of Waste Diversion and an interagency working group, the city has already taken steps forward, but getting anywhere close to "zero waste" will take years. Using a new metric called the "citywide residential diversion rate," DPW is currently recycling about 21% of its waste.
Previous estimates have put the amount of waste generated in the District at around 800,000 tons per year, with private haulers managing a large share of that material. In FY15, DPW's two transfer stations managed approximately 459,000 tons. About 43% of the city's refuse is currently sent to a Covanta waste-to-energy (WTE) facility in Lorton, VA and whatever isn't recycled or composted goes to a variety of landfills in Virginia.
Implementing the many changes required to reverse these trends will fall onto DPW among many other city agencies. Since he was appointed in September 2015, DPW Director Christopher Shorter has been talking to representatives from cities around the country and reassessing the local system to figure out the best way forward.
Waste Dive spoke with Shorter this week to learn more about what's next for the District.
WASTE DIVE: Based on the events DPW has been helping to host — Feeding the 5000, the first "zero waste" music festival, recycling competitions for businesses and schools — you've been actively raising awareness around waste issues. Changing recycling rules is one thing, but does DPW see the need for a culture change to happen as well?
SHORTER: You are absolutely right. We try to educate young people about what recycling is, what a litter-free D.C. means and so we're going into schools.
In terms of my generation I don't think I had a government agency that came into my school to teach me about recycling. Kids who are involved in our programs are very excited and it really helps when there are school-by-school competitions. Young people get excited about that sort of thing. We have found the programs to be effective and we're going to be ramping up our efforts in a big way in the coming year around education.
In terms of your question of whether we believe doing these kinds of events help, in terms of educating residents, it absolutely does. Most of the people that ate that day with the Feeding the 5000 event had no idea until they got in line that they were about to eat, or were eating, food that would've unfortunately been discarded. This is food that's good and that's well-produced, but would have found its way to the waste stream.
Organic waste diversion was a key focus in the report. What are your plans for expanding organics recycling to residents?
SHORTER: What we celebrated in this report was the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation's community composting program. Their capacity is growing, this is really a voluntary program and the residents who are involved in that program are those that are the most serious about making sure that they reduce their footprint.
In this current budget year we are exploring composting curbside. That does not mean that we'll be in a position this current year or next to actually introduce or launch. But we'll certainly be pushing as best as we can to make sure that we're thinking about this in the right way and that we're introducing it to residents in the right way. It may start off as an opt-in program and then evolve into more. This also might involve us investing into a capital project that will reduce the need for us to travel outside of the District for a composting facility. So all those things we are sort of in the process now of exploring and I'm certainly excited about the work that's already been done.
Organics processing costs have been a challenge for multiple cities. Where is the material you're collecting currently going? Do you have any partnerships with larger processing facilities in the region?
SHORTER: We don't have any larger-scale partnerships, unfortunately. So our local water and sewer agency has really done some phenomenal work with anaerobic digestion. Food scraps placed in the garbage disposal are sent to this anaerobic digester centrally and it generates energy.
Shifting to the larger picture, this 80% diversion goal also includes waste managed by private haulers from commercial accounts and multi-unit buildings. Why will it be important for private haulers to register with the Office of Waste Diversion and provide data about their operations?
SHORTER: We introduced a number of initiatives, a number of programs, we have events. We're also collecting baseline information now so that three, five, seven years from now we're looking back at this time and we understand the progress. And so there's a lot of behind-the-scenes work being done to establish reporting mechanisms and that's what's happening with private haulers this year so we can have a better picture of what our waste stream is and how much waste is actually being generated and where it's going.
Private haulers are going to begin reporting this year and we've set up partnerships with our sister agency, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which also plays a part in the licensing of private haulers to make sure that...we're getting all of the private haulers that do business in the District.
Based on the annual report, most of DPW's waste and recyclables appear to be going to Virginia or Maryland. Because this waste is not traveling that far compared to the export distances of some other cities and costs may be lower, do you expect to see a big cost savings by diverting organic waste to a local anaerobic digestion facility?
SHORTER: I couldn't say yet in cost savings. Based on our current rates we're paying more per ton for recycling than we are for waste at this point. And so my hope is that we see a reduction in the amount that we're spending but that's not the primary objective here. My hope is that it is a product of us becoming more efficient in effectively diverting.
If and when the 80% diversion goal is reached, does DPW have a preference between landfills or WTE for the remaining refuse?
SHORTER: You know, it's very controversial. We work very well with the local environmental stakeholder group and I don't know that there's unanimous agreement. I know that we are going to work tirelessly to send as little to the waste-to-energy facility as possible over the next few years ... At this point the District is utilizing landfill as well as waste-to-energy. The whole goal of the programs and the work that we're doing is to rely on both of those options less and less as the years go by.
What type of contract are you in with Covanta? Are there any minimum tonnage requirements that would limit your diversion options in the future?
SHORTER: We are in a multi-year contract with them, but that contract does not have a floor in the sense that it does not penalize us for diverting. We made sure of that when we negotiated the contract. And so we can continue with them and if we find other opportunities and options for diverting waste then there's certainly no penalty from Covanta to do so.
In addition to diversion, DPW has also been focusing on reduction with the possibility of a pay-as-you-throw system. Is that still on the table as an option?
SHORTER: Yes, we are certainly working with...the D.C. Environmental Network to explore pay-as-you-throw. Based on current thinking there's an almost immediate reduction in the amount of waste being generated in a jurisdiction that takes up pay-as-you-throw. And so we're certainly exploring it and I certainly wouldn't be alone in saying that [it] could potentially be one of the many options that the city takes up to help with the diversion rate.
Last year, a ban on certain polystyrene foam products took effect in D.C. Is the District considering any similar policies for certain types of packaging that may not fit well in the city's new "zero waste" plan?
SHORTER: In general I think the business community, the commercial sector, will play a big role in helping us to achieve our goals around diversion. But yes, packaging is a big one. In fact this is not regulation that DPW is proposing, but we are working with the District's Department of Energy and Environment and they will be proposing some regulations around packaging, around plastics, and potentially do some work around glass as well. And so yes, I would say in general that those things will also help in meeting any goals that any city sets for waste diversion.
As I'm sure you've seen, other cities have been moving away from glass collection. Do you think there's a way to make glass work in DPW's program?
SHORTER: We're in the early stages, we actually have now a third party that we're going to be working with to help us figure this out. So I couldn't say now where we'll end up with glass, but it's definitely a part of the puzzle.
On glass, as well as organics, it sounds like the city is making a conscious choice to move toward "zero waste" not necessarily because it will be more economical or efficient but because it will be more sustainable. Is that a fair assessment?
SHORTER: Absolutely right. D.C. is a world-class city and I think we certainly believe the mayor has made it clear that we want to be as green and as healthy as possible. And I think waste management plays a huge part in that. So we are working as best as we can and as fast as we can to realize some of the goals and the city is ready for it.
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