Together Forever Your recycling and your trash, sharing cramped quarters in the trucks of private D.C. haulers.

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Darrow Montgomery

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.


Our Readers Say

So basically the city passed an unenforceable recycling law so that local politicians could send out self-laudatory press releases about how forward thinking they were and no one ever bothered to check to see if the program was working or not.

The basic incompetence of our elected officials is no longer shocking.
Four years ago, I went to the dump in Montgomery County, MD, and I was stunned to see a recycling truck leave a huge load of plastic recycling in the trash section, where it was scooped up with all of the garbage. Could be that all local governments are just paying lip service to recycling, w/o follow through.
This is why our laws, leaders, and their corporate overseers cannot be trusted to seriously address climate change. Only individuals and small communities can begin by making the sacrifice of getting by with much less. If we show the way, others will follow.

This also highlights why we all need to begin growing some of our own food. If you don't have a yard, consider a community garden plot. While we're at it we need to decrease the garbage that we make by composting. Again, no yard? Try worm bins indoors!
This is an issue that I've been aware of but had my hands tied on.
Both our condo AND our office building enforce recycling as a requirement, but dispose of garbage and recycling together.
After 2 years of fastidious separating, to find out that all my hard work was completely futile, I feel lied to, and totally wasteful.
Virginia laws require recycling, enforce it with separate vehicles and also have drop zones for hauling bags and such
DC--We need to see this as an opportunity for progress--More jobs, hello! Double the trucks=double the jobs, in addition drop zones ensure that local citizens who don't have such facilities can take care of it themselves--lets take out the trash.
For the past 10 years, until last year, I lived in an 19-unit apartment building in DC. At first, there was no option to recycle, as there was only a trash dumpster in the back. Later, the landlord added a big, blue recycling dumpster, and much to my delight, I was finally able to do the right thing.

Problem was my neighbors in the other units of the building. Week after week, people continued to throw their recycling in with the trash, and then started throwing their trash in with the recycling! After a few months of this, my landlord gave up and removed the recycling bin. It was just too much of a hassle. And, frankly, I can't really blame him.

I can only blame the ghetto-ass fools I shared the building with.
We live at the 4100 W St., and twice a week I see the same thing every time: Bowie's trash service combining all of the "well separated" recycle matter in with the bulk trash. Every single time it is the same thing. I work from home and I see the same violations each time they come, and...I even video recorded it this summer. Doesn't matter if it is good weather or bad, it is always the same thing, violations.
Hi everyone -

Thanks for your comments. You can call DPW whenever you see this being done. If they hear from more residents maybe they will start enforcing this part of the recycling law. Pete, you should send that video the DPW.

I would be interested in hearing what city officials report back to any of you who complain to DPW. Please let us know by commenting on this page or you could leave a message on my blog:

I sent you an email.

Also, I have had discussions with DPW reps on the Adams Morgan list - they're searchable - in the past about this very topic. Especially about the lack of a central recycling center. Again, it's all searchable on the AM list. Thanks for the article.
Today Bowies Trash serivce showed up with a brand new truck and only took the recycled matter.
Question is...will recycled matter be taken to a recycling depot or dumped at the general refuse tranfer station with the rest of the bulk garbage?

I may send the video to DPW...


I posted your recycling article on the Adams Morgan list (the link to it, that is). Thank you for writing it BTW!

The issue came up of exactly what is a commercial building (condo or apt) - a building with 4, 3 or 2 or more units? You say two. I thought it was four. And so far two people on the AM list think it is 3.

Can you clarify?


The city's trucks pick up from single and two family houses. So the people who said three are right; Buildings with three or more units must hire their own trash and recycling haulers and file a recycling plan with the city.

Thanks for posting the story.

And, thanks to everyone for their comments.
As a representative of the private solid waste industry, I’d like to counter this article and some of the comments that have been made. It is important to keep things in perspective.

Americans have achieved incredible progress with recycling in recent decades. According to the U.S. EPA, the recycling rate has increased – from less than 10 percent of MSW generated in 1980 to over 33 percent in 2007. And disposal of waste to a landfill has decreased from 89 percent in 1980 to 54 percent of MSW in 2007. This progress largely is the result of investment in new technologies by the solid waste industry, as well as participation by businesses and residents in many communities. In fact, the statistics cited in this article – 224 citations and written warnings in Montgomery County for violating that county’s commercial recycling law or less than one per day in a county of about one million people – should hardly be viewed as representative of a systemic failure.

Is there room for improvement? Absolutely! As described in the article and in some of the online comments, there are still too many instances where individuals choose not to recycle despite having access to a recycling program. Office buildings and apartment buildings, where building maintenance staff generally serve as an intermediaries between individuals and the waste collectors who serve the building, definitely are areas where improvement is possible.

While the solid waste industry is committed to continuing to improve recycling participation rates in the future, the industry cannot enforce recycling laws – we only can facilitate them. The rest is up to individuals to observe local laws and separate recyclables for proper management. Anyone interested in learning more about America’s solid waste infrastructure should visit:

Thom Metzger
National Solid Wastes Management Association
Washington, DC
I don't get it.

It didn't seem like you countered anything, just that you tried to put a cheerier face on our recycling efforts, terrible and lackluster as they are.

(I'm trying to remember from the film Addicted to Plastic how much we recycle and I think it is as little as 5% in the US. In India, that number is 60%.)

You say "As described in the article and in some of the online comments, there are still too many instances where individuals choose not to recycle despite having access to a recycling program."

Actually this is not true. Reading the article, we learned that us apartment dwellers WANT to recycle, we wash out the containers and go and faithfully put our recyclables in the bin but it is the private contractors who do not recycle them, and it is our government that does not fine them for not doing so. INDIVIDUALS want to recycle and indeed think they are doing so. The second part of your statement, "despite having access to a recylcing program" - did you know DC does not have a central recylcing center. Anywhere? So after learning our program is a charade, we cannot even do it ourselves?

You say" While the solid waste industry is committed to continuing to improve recycling participation rates in the future, the industry cannot enforce recycling laws – we only can facilitate them."

No one is asking you to. What we want is for our government to enforce the laws on the industry. Why on earth would anyone think that an INDUSTRY can enforce any law??

No doubt the solid waste industry has made a lot of progress and is indeed relied upon for future innovation. Please go forth and innovate.
Ahh, yet another Green Failure in a long long line of Green Failures. You'd think by now they'd have gotten something right, by sheer chance if nothing else.
We need to get DC to follow a zero waste policy. Please see article below:
worse yet, at an apartment complex in Rockville, One company truck picks up the large trash bins and another seperate company sends a truck for the recylables;which are then all mixed together in that truck. Double the work, fuel and vehicles for absolutely NO recycling benefit. FRAUD.
I can't feel any surprise over this. DC government proves itself incompetent and apathetic in virtually every category across the board. Why would waste management be any different?
In many offices and businesses, recycle bins are emptied right into the regular trash by the janitorial staff. I fear that much of our recycling efforts are wasted.
DC has been mixing trash with recycling forever!!!! Go to the fort totton dump u will see for your self!!!!!
Looks like the Virginia waste haulers ( kmg and VHI) were the best at recycling an all then the dc and maryland haulers
perhaps a class action law suit might bring this to the public forefront.
Are there any current articles or investigations in to this? Has it gotten any better? And what groups are advocating to change this?
I located World Recycling Company, Cheverly Maryland from a referral, they provide residents/companies a chance to send their used paper products to a facility that can distribute the recycled goods to other companies to create recycled goods for consumer consumption. I called World Recycling Company, Cheverly Maryland to ask a few questions and the VP/General Manager answered the phone and was instantly irritated by my call. Before I asked any questions I inquired on who I was speaking with, and he confirmed his name was Doug. I asked Doug what was the process for paper goods drop off, Doug advised they normally deal with large companies and not regular residents and although I had over a ton of paper to get rid of, Doug said he has a 90 Gallon dumpster at his house that he fills weekly and the fact that I have only a ton or so to recycle is not a big deal nor does it warrant his company to reimburse anyone for such disposal when larger companies bring in tractor trailer sized loads. Doug said I should set the ton or so of paper out for normal trash pick up and if I want the little bit of money they will pay me for the paper I'm looking to drop off, I can retrieve the check at the office on the cork board in an envelope (Raising his voice)! Doug then proceeded to hang up on me. I was so disturbed by the phone conversation that I call back and spoke with Ameal who apologized for Doug's rudeness. I found that Doug was very adamant that only Big Businesses and Corporations were the clients he wanted to entertain or even be cordial with. Doug wasn't aware that I was referred by one of his account holders and because of this encounter I'm surprised my referral even deals with his company. Recycling is not just for Big Business and Corporations but as a collective group we help to achieve the final result which is less waste along with helping Doug's company (World Recycling Company, Cheverly Maryland) profitability...unless Doug's company is running a non-profit volunteer organization?

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