Recycling in Washington, DC - What You See May Not Always Be What's Happening
But there's a glitch: Sometimes recycled material is being collected with the trash and dumped into the trash trucks. Residents in the District of Columbia have seen both the garbage and recycling dumped together into a single truck. Here's one eyewitness account from the Cleveland Park neighborhood: "Just before noon today a loud crashing noise of cans, bottles, etc. in our alley got my attention. I could see someone evidently dumping of one our trash/recyclable containers into another one....Also, I saw that the contents of the our recyclable bin had been stuffed into our trash bin."
And from Sadie in Chevy Chase a few months ago: "This morning, I watched the DC trash guys empty the contents of each neighbor's recycling bin into the trash can and then empty all the contents into the trash truck."
Sasha on Macomb Street reported the same thing again in May, "This morning...a trash type truck picked up our recycling and mixed it all together [with the garbage]."
The District of Columbia's solid waste recycling program has undergone changes and has encountered problems over the years. In 1990, the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against the District of Columbia, which the Sierra Club charge was not following its own recycling laws regarding recycling in government buildings. The lawsuit was settled in April 2002, with a new commitment by the city toward recycling. In 2005 the District of Columbia government severed its relationship with the private contractor that had been doing recycling pickups, and started to use its own city-owned trucks for recycling collection
In the Chevy Chase neighborhood one resident had an opportunity to talk with the trash collectors. Here's what she found out on May 17:
"An observant neighbor recently alerted me and others in our block of Military Road that, for some weeks now, she had seen a uniformed man dumping recycling cans into green supercans early on collection mornings. This morning several of us questioned the recycling men in our alley to see what was going on. They said they were consolidating the recycling into empty garbage supercans to make it easier to dump into their trucks.
"One woman asked one sanitation worker why her recycling had been transferred and placed on top of her bag of garbage in her green supercan and was told that it wasn't. He claimed they only used empty supercans to put the recycling in. He then dumped her supercan (now filled with recyclables) into his recycling truck while she was standing there and, lo and behold, at the bottom was her bag of garbage. He acted surprised and said that he would take out the bag of garbage from the back of the truck and put it into another green supercan. Another neighbor confirmed that the man did take the garbage bag out of the back of the recycling truck and put it into her green supercan.
"Just then the regular garbage truck came down the alley. The driver asked some of us if we had seen the recycling mixed with the garbage and said that they have been telling their supervisor for some time that this was happening but nothing had been done to stop it. They asked us to please call the mayor's hotline 727-1000 to report it, but then said it would be better to call the collection supervisor, Mike Moore. One neighbor reached him and reported what she had seen and asked what advantage the recycling people get by dumping recycling into the supercans. She was told that the blue recycling bins were smaller so it takes longer to dump them. By putting the contents into the bigger supercans it took them less time, but they were not supposed to be doing it."
The problem isn't limited to private homes, either. Danielle in Cleveland Park told me, "I see it all the time in our building, the Monterey. From my window I can see the trash men go into our basement and bring out the trash containers and the recycling containers and put it all in the trash truck."
Recycling in the District of Columbia hasn't been halted. One DC Government representative said, "Yes, we are recycling. We recycled over 22,000 tons of glass, paper and plastic [in 2006]."
Material brought to the recycling center gets processed using a variety of technologies including magnets and fans to separate the metals. People who've watched recycling in action report it as being a very "cool" process.
So why is some recycling mixed with the trash? There are two explanations. First, what appears to be co-mingling of recycling and trash is really a benign shortcut taken to make the day go easier for the hard-working recycling and trash workers. It's simply faster and less work to dump the recycling from the smaller container into the larger supercan and then hoist the supercan containing the recycling into the recycling truck. The city uses the same trucks for recycling and trash collection, so it's easy to mistake this for mixing the two together, especially if you're watching before the morning's caffeine has taken effect.
But sometimes --and this is what numerous people have reported-- the trash and recycling do get mixed together and nothing's recycled on that block. It's a mistake; that's not supposed to happen. And the city is taking steps to ensure that it doesn't happen, Hallie Clemm at the Department of Public Works told me. To help prevent trash and recycling from being co-mingled even once, the city has barred trash and recycling collectors from using the shortcut of putting the recycling into an empty supercan. The city wants to give recycling an edge by avoiding any perception that recycling is being diminished, and will penalize workers who do that. Second, Hallie Clemm asks residents to report any instance of trash and recycling co-mingling. Include the truck number (usually on the driver's door), street and time of day you saw this when you call 202-727-1000.
Update, July, 2008: Reports are coming in from the Cleveland Park and Chevy Chase neighborhoods, once again, about what appears to be trash and recycling being co-mingled. So the "perception" part of the problem, a year later, has not been alleviated. That does raise questions, once again, about what is ultimately happening to recycling in the District of Columbia. The Cleveland Park Listserv has had some message posts about this.