One Wednesday morning last winter, a big evergreen-colored garbage truck from Bowie’s, Inc. lumbers into the parking lot behind Politics & Prose bookstore. The sound of its engine breaks the quiet as its mechanical arms grab hold of the Dumpster and unload its trash into the back—a tumble of black plastic bags filled with coffee grinds, food scraps, greasy takeout containers, and castoff paper products.
After the truck releases the Dumpster, the garbagemen get their hands on something that doesn’t mix well with all that rotting garbage: the recycling. They roll up with bins holding newspaper, cardboard, bottles, and cans—all dutifully separated by employees at the bookstore and other businesses on this upper Connecticut Avenue strip. One by one, the men tip the contents of the recycling containers on top of the refuse—the bottles make a tinkling sound as the glass shatters against the truck bed.
Then: They go back to collecting trash. The driver hits a switch and it’s all smashed together before disappearing into the belly of the truck.
An exception? A rare case of wrongful commingling?
It doesn’t look that way if you spend some time following trucks of various private garbage companies around town. D.C. law requires recycling at all city buildings, though the law appears to stop at the threshold of all alleys. There, behind businesses and apartment complexes all across the city, this sloppy ritual goes down with striking regularity: In a blur of asses and elbows, workers throw stuff from green containers, black containers, and blue containers in the same truck, creating a jumble of trash and recycling that can never be de-mingled.
That’s the conclusion that Washington City Paper reached after spending months tailing garbage trucks and staking out Dumpsters in various parts of the District. The commingling is certainly not what the city had in mind when it imposed mandatory recycling, and there’s good reason to believe laws are being broken. But a loophole in the law allows trash haulers to have up to 30 percent of recyclable materials in their loads without being in violation.
Local environmentalists say there is plenty of blame to go around for Washington’s recycling record, which is among the worst in the country. The companies paid to haul the recycling from office and retail buildings and most condo and apartment complexes have few incentives to do the right thing. For starters, the market for recyclables has tanked.
And it appears that fear of consequences doesn’t figure into the haulers’ behavior. The city’s recycling enforcement efforts focus on making sure offices and retailers are putting their newspapers and plastic water bottles in the appropriate bins, not on making sure that those newspapers and water bottles actually get recycled.
For whatever reason, the D.C. Department of Public Works (DPW) has not fined haulers for trashing the recyclables for years. In neighboring Montgomery County, officials issued 224 citations and written warnings for the same offense last year.
The city’s sorry record on trash-truck enforcement shadows its overall record on recycling. Though the District in 1988 set a goal of recycling 45 percent of its trash stream by October 2004, the figure now stands at 24 percent (and that’s an imperfect figure). Cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, and Dallas hover around the 50 percent mark. Neighboring jurisdictions also do better than the District in residential recyling: Montgomery County has a 44 percent rate, while Arlington County’s residential program recycles 42 percent of its trash. Prince George’s County recycles 35 percent.
“The system is so broken,” says Jim B. Dougherty, a lawyer and member of the Sierra Club’s D.C. chapter, which has dragged the city into court multiple times over enforcement of the recycling law in the last two decades. He says the latest revelations are “outrageous” and calls for a formal investigation by the D.C. Council.