“Can I recycle this?” As an avid and self-promoting recycler residing in the District, I dread this question. Unfortunately, and for too long, the answer in DC has been, “It depends.”
“It depends” depends on where you intend to recycle the item and what the “material processing facility” (MRF, fondly pronounced “merf”) – the recycling company that services that recycling bin – will accept as a recyclable product.
While there are many items that almost all MRFs accept, there are differences. For example, a yogurt container that is accepted by the MRF (and its associated recycling “hauler” that collects the recycling that you generate in your home) is not necessarily recyclable by the MRF/hauler that collects the recycling from your downtown DC office. This lack of standardization has caused confusion and contamination of the recycling stream, and reduced the amount of materials recycled in DC. Fortunately this is about to change.
In January the DC Department of Public Works (DPW) published the Mayor’s List of Recyclables, which provides a single, comprehensive list of recyclable materials for DC residents and businesses. It includes over 200 items that, as of January 2018, all haulers/MRFs operating in DC must accept, be it through contracts with businesses, DC residential recycling, or apartments and/or condos. The list was compiled through a survey of eight MRFs located within 45 miles of DC to understand what materials they accept for recycling as well as those they accept that are ultimately treated as waste. Once implemented, the list will be reviewed and updated every two years. Failure to comply with the list will prevent the MRF from receiving DC recyclables.
“Providing a uniform list of what is accepted for recycling throughout the District will make it easier for District residents and visitors to successfully participate in recycling and is an important step in the District city meeting its waste diversion goals,” said DPW Director Christopher Shorter. “Waste diversion” refers to the amount of material diverted from landfills or incineration.
What are the biggest changes as a result of this list? For now, plastic bags, plastic film, and plastic wrap are no longer accepted in recycling because they can clog and even shut down recycling separation machines.
This plastic is currently treated as waste at MRFs. Recyclables should be dumped directly into a recycling bin (bagless), while plastic bags and wrap should be dropped at a participating local supermarket plastic bag recycling bin. In the District, most if not all Safeway, Harris Teeter, and Giant grocery stores have plastic film/bag recycling receptacles. You can also find dropoff locations near you at www.plasticfilmrecycling.org/.
More changes – including a broader list of recyclable items – will be announced early in 2018 once the Mayor’s List comes into effect. More information on the Mayor’s List and the survey process can be found on the DPW website at www.dpw.dc.gov/recyclingcompostlist/ or by emailing email@example.com. DPW is developing educational materials to inform residents about the changes.
While DC continues to make strides with recycling and composting, challenges remain. A DPW Solid Waste Diversion Report for FY2015 and FY2016 (https://dpw.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dpw/page_content/attachments/FY15WasteDiversionReport_f.pdf) found that the residential diversion rate was just below 21 percent. DC’s waste diversion goals are laid out in the Sustainable DC Plan and seek to reduce total waste generation by 15 percent and increase DC’s waste diversion rate to 80 percent by 2032. While exact metrics vary, DC’s 21 percent diversion rate is far below that of cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland, which have rates above 50 percent. Less than half of the 116 DC Public Schools facilities established paper-recycling programs during the FY2015-16 period, and only a third had food-waste composting programs.
Overall, recycling and composting opportunities are expanding across the District. While curbside composting isn’t coming to DC soon, several local businesses provide home/apartment/business compost pickup services. Beyond this, DPW will be establishing compost dropoff spots in some farmers’ markets in each ward on Saturdays beginning in April.
A January 2017 foam container ban requires that restaurants, supermarkets, food trucks, and organizations that serve food must use compostable containers. Paint can now be recycled for free at stores across DC through PaintCare.org. Ultimately the Mayor’s List of Recyclables is going to make the answer to “Can I recycle this?” a whole lot easier.
Catherine Plume is a lifelong environmentalist, a writer, and a blogger for the DC Recycler: www.DCRecycler.blogspot.com; Twitter @DC_Recycler. She is also a board member of the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club.