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.
If your garbageman gets his paycheck from the city, don’t panic about where your recycling is headed. While residents occasionally report missed pickups, the municipal trucks, by and large, do a faithful job of loading trash with other trash and recycling with other recycling. However, DPW’s neon-orange trucks serve only single-family homes and buildings with two units. Together, those customers yield about 25 percent of the District’s trash and recyclables.
The remaining 75 percent comes from commercial buildings, which include offices, stores, and restaurants as well as apartment and condo complexes with more than two units. Those buildings must file recycling plans with the city. They must also hire their own private haulers.
And that’s often where the trouble begins. Our investigation found five companies mixing recyclables and then taking them to trash-only transfer stations or landfills outside of the city. The companies were large and small—ranging from establishments with fleets of the latest mechanized garbage trucks to ma-and-pa operators of lumbering clunkers. While we also observed trucks properly handling the two forms of refuse, the more time we spent on the road, the more violations we witnessed. Often, crew members explained they were running behind schedule and under orders from their supervisors to just get the trash off the streets. Others said they were helping out their recycling crews, who just couldn’t handle all the stops on their routes around town. Some went so far as to explain that it didn’t make economic sense for their company to send out a recycling truck to pick up small quantities of cardboard and other recyclables. Many said they were under pressure from their clients as well, who expected to see the bins empty by the end of the day, regardless of environmental concerns and city regulations.
“We’ve done it, I’m not going to lie to you, and the city has been very tolerant,” says Diane Roderick, president of Bowie’s, the company caught trashing recyclables behind Politics & Prose.
A crew from RJ’s Disposal Service, headquartered in Capitol Heights, Md., says it routinely tosses out the recycling as its trucks make the rounds through the city starting at 6:30 a.m. each day. The driver says that’s just a part of doing business.
“It’s part of the job. It doesn’t bother me any. If we don’t [throw away the recycling], we’d get blamed for it. It’s better to clean it up.”
His helper, Randy Giles, 32, offers the same defense: Since they pick up only once a week from the Mount Pleasant address where they were interviewed, the rats would take over if they didn’t throw away the recycling, too
“Of course, it happens on occasion,” says the owner of another trash company, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “If the recycling is overflowing and the recycling truck is not scheduled to come for a day or two, you take it all with the trash.”
There’s a lot more, as the chart below details.
The commingling haulers responded in various ways to our questions about what their trucks were carrying. Hugo M. Garcia, president of the Potomac Falls, Va.–based KMG, blamed his driver for mistakenly picking up an entire Dumpster of cardboard with the trash, then suggested it could have been “a computer glitch.” He then threatened legal action against City Paper.
Al Hodge, an executive with VHI, Inc. of Manassas, Va., says trashing the recyclables is not the company’s policy. He says VHI operates trucks on dedicated recycling routes six days a week and uses a computer system to make sure each truck can handle all its pickups.
“Either it was contaminated [with trash] or it was a mistake,” Hodge said. “But we don’t do that on a regular basis. That’s against District law.”
Meanwhile, Rick Johnson of RJ’s Disposal Service, headquartered in Capitol Heights, Md., says, “That’s not supposed to be.”
“When we recycle, it saves us money. I’m not out there on the trucks,” Johnson says. “But that’s not our policy. That’s not what we do. It shouldn’t happen.”
Back in March, J.R. Coleman, the proprietor of J.R.Trash Service, who holds city licenses to carry both trash and recycling, said the trash and recyclables he was hauling would be separated at the Consolidated Waste Industries trash transfer station at 12th and W Streets NE. But the W Street station doesn’t do any recycling, nor does the city’s only other privately owned trash transfer station, the Waste Management site on Queen’s Chapel Road NE, according to the companies.
Asked later why he was taking recyclables to a station that supplies landfills, Coleman denied having said he was going to take the recycling to W Street. He then explained that he takes his trucks back to his yard in Capitol Heights and separates the recycling from the trash there before taking the trash and the recycling to separate locations.
When City Paper encountered him again, this time in September on Capitol Hill, dumping large quantities of recyclables in with the trash, Coleman offered yet another explanation: He said he would take the stuff to Kenilworth Avenue, in Maryland, the location of World Recycling, Inc. Told that World Recycling doesn’t take cans, cardboard, and other items that have been contaminated with trash, he conceded: “I’m going to take it to the dump.”
Then, he was on his way again, making several other stops in Trinidad, where everything went into the back of his truck—garbage bags, recyclables, and even an old TV and other so-called “e-waste.”
At one of the stops, 1213 Queen St. NE, a four-unit apartment building a few blocks from Gallaudet University, Coleman and his crew opened the wooden back gate and rolled three trash cans into the alley. No recycling bins were in sight.
Lisa Santosa, 23, who lives in the building, says it doesn’t have recycling—even though it is required to—so she carts her bottles and cans herself to Whole Foods Market in Tenleytown, where she works as a buyer of books, cards, and magazines.
Santosa says she would “absolutely” like it if her building recycled but commiserates with the landlady, who has complained about the city’s two-tiered system in which the city’s trucks pick up from single- and two-family homes but buildings with three or more units must fend for themselves.
“It seems like a kind of strange system,” Santosa says. “It doesn’t make sense to me. If they are going to stop here anyway, why not pick it all up?”
The landlady, Gallaudet professor Mary Diane Clark, bought the building three years ago. With it, she says, came Coleman, the trash collector, who picks up at several other buildings on the block as well.
She praises Coleman’s service. But when she inquired about recycling, he turned her down, she says, telling her his operation was too small to handle it.
She laughs when asked what she does with her own recyclables. “I just haul it around the East Coast,” she says. “Saturday, I took six bags of recycling to my friends in Pennsylvania. This weekend, I’m taking more to my beach house in New Jersey.”
Sometimes she has accumulated so much, she drives directly to a New Jersey recycling center. But she concedes some things simply get trashed.
“Cardboard, I can’t take,” she says. “I have a Prius. It’s too much, it won’t fit.”
Despite the mileage she’s clocked on her hybrid to do the right thing with her recycling, Clark is in violation of the city’s recycling law. She hasn’t filed a recycling plan. There are no recycling bins. And there is no actual recycling. Those things could net her fines of $100 per violation.
Looking around her neighborhood, she has concluded that most people aren’t recycling and says she’s not too concerned about a crackdown.
“If they started fining people, they’d have a lot of unhappy people on their hands. And I would go and complain,” she says. But she adds that she wouldn’t mind paying the city an additional fee to pick up her building’s recycling, as long as it didn’t jeopardize the livelihoods of trash collectors like Coleman.
“I don’t want to hurt the private businesses. A lot of people are making a living on it,” she says of trash, “but I would love it if the city would pony up and pick up the recycling. The city has the trucks; the city has the cans; and they come here anyway to pick up from my neighbor across the street.”
There are about 40 companies registered with the city to haul recycling away from commercial buildings. They include behemoths like Waste Management, which cherry-pick the larger and more lucrative contracts, as well as midsize companies such as Bowie’s and small operations like Coleman’s, which do most of their business with residential buildings and neighborhood establishments.
Those operations have grown dramatically in the last few decades as booming international demand for recycled paper and metals pushed prices skyward. All that changed in September 2008 when the global economy melted down, and international recycling prices plummeted. They have since recovered a little but remain way below what they were this time last year, says Wilton “Tony” Lash, president of the local refuse empire, Consolidated Waste Industries, which operates a fleet of garbage trucks, the W Street trash transfer station, and a recycling center in Capitol Heights.
“Everybody now is just trying to hold on,” Lash says.
At one point, Doug Williams, vice president of World Recycling, Inc., says he couldn’t help but wonder whether haulers would bother to keep coming to his Cheverly, Md., center.
“That was the scary part because some haulers say, ‘Why come here when I can just take it to the dump?’” Williams says. He says he worried that they would “do the math and figure they are only going to make 30 or 40 bucks [on a day’s load] and say ‘to hell with it.’”
Neil Seldman, president of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, a D.C.-based national think tank that works on community development issues, blames city officials for the kind of attitude Williams describes. About six years ago, DPW awarded Waste Management’s Maryland recycling center a big city contract to process all of D.C.’s residential reusables. It was one of the worst things the city could have done, says Seldman. The decision prompted a local recycler to close its doors, forcing recycling haulers to travel longer distances and pay more in fuel. For many of the city’s smaller operators, the added costs and hassles could be enough to discourage them from actually recycling the stuff in their clients’ recycling bins.
“When you make it cheaper to dispose of it [recycling] as trash than to do the proper thing, that’s when you get people not recycling,” says Seldman, who acts as a consultant on recycling issues for public works departments in the District, Los Angeles, and many other cities around the country with more impressive recycling records.
“Solid waste is not uppermost in the minds of the mayor and the commissioners. And it’s a shame,” says Seldman.
Dougherty, the Sierra Club lawyer, wants action taken against haulers that do excessive commingling. “Every time they take recycling to the landfill, it’s a violation of the law,” he says.
If only it were so simple, say DPW officials. When it comes to recycling enforcement, they point out, the District has an enormous jurisdictional problem: If haulers try to unload recyclables with trash at one of the two transfer stations operated by the city, then they can be cited for violations. However, the city’s enforcement ends at the District line, so if the haulers cart their stuff to neighboring jurisdictions, there’s nothing D.C. can do about it.
“The spirit of the law is one thing, but we cannot control what goes on outside the city,” says Linda Grant, a DPW spokeswoman.
Even if wiggle room exists, says Dougherty, it’s the city’s responsibility to eliminate it.
“Maybe there’s a truck-sized loophole here,” Dougherty says. “If so, I would expect DPW to enforce the spirit of the law and address this it and fix it.”
DPW has stepped up recycling inspections in recent years. The department wrote 1,410 notices of violations in fiscal 2008 for a variety of infractions ranging from failure to file a recycling plan with the city to having an inadequate number of bins duly marked for cardboard, newspapers, bottles, etc. Haulers, though, are getting a pretty easy ride. Of those 1,410 violations, only about 5 percent were issued to haulers. DPW officials say they have not issued a single fine-carrying citation for violating Section 2052.2 of the District of Columbia Municipal Regulations for several years. That’s the statute making it illegal for haulers to have 30 percent or more of recyclable material mixed in with the trash.
The sort of enforcement that D.C. officials say is impossible hasn’t been a problem for officials in neighboring Montgomery County. Last year, county officials issued haulers 133 citations for this offense with fines upwards of $100 apiece. They also wrote 91 warnings and made numerous verbal warnings to haulers for mixing recycling and trash, according to Peter R. Karasik, section chief of central operations at Montgomery County’s Division of Solid Waste Services.
Haulers don’t just benefit from lax enforcement and inspections in D.C. They have minimal responsibility to tell the city what they are hauling. While they must report how much they recycle each month, they aren’t required to say how much trash they haul, making it impossible to calculate Washington’s overall recycling rate. The 24 percent figure estimated by DPW covers just the city’s in-house residential pickup.
“We only know what they tell us, essentially,” says Hallie Clemm, DPW’s deputy administrator for the solid waste management administration.
The haulers say they don’t trash the recycling every day. And City Paper’s investigation corroborates this. For every garbage truck we caught in the act of trashing the recyclables, another truck was observed acting within the law. So it’s hard to say just how pervasive the problem is.
Sometimes it’s unavoidable, according to Roderick, the president of Bowie’s. She says she can’t do anything about snow days or other “acts of God” that prevent her trucks from keeping up with stops that number 60 or 70 a day.
“It does happen, but it doesn’t happen often,” says Roderick, who attributes the trashing of the recyclables behind Politics & Prose to a snowstorm the previous Monday that had paralyzed much of the city and grounded her fleet.
“That whole week, my trash trucks—and you could have taken a lot of pictures—were cleaning up the recycling. They were told by me, especially at Politics & Prose, ‘Let’s get it cleaned up.’”
“Being closed on a Monday is a nightmare in the trash business. It’s our heaviest day,” says Roderick, 60, who has been running the day-to-day operations at Bowie’s since the mid-1990s.
At Townley Place, an apartment complex in Glover Park serviced by Bowie’s, one former and three current residents say they have watched recyclable materials carted off with the trash. Audrey Chumbis, who lived at the 40th Place NW building until about a year ago, says she often observed Bowie’s crews from her son’s bedroom window overlooking the trash and recycling bins.
“I don’t think I ever saw a recycling truck,” according to Chumbis, who says she watched garbage men throw out the trash and the recycling together week after week.
But a current resident of the same building, who observed Bowie’s trash and recycling pickups for one week in May, found it happened less frequently. He says Bowie’s crews trashed the recycling just once that week—throwing out cardboard, which had been broken down and set aside for recycling.
Carla Cohen, co-founder of Politics & Prose, who runs a monthly discussion group on global warming that draws the likes of Ward 3 Councilmember Mary M. Cheh and other high-powered city residents, says she’s appalled but not surprised by what City Paper saw behind her bookstore.
“We’ve always been worried about that. It’s definitely happened before,” Cohen says. “People are careful to separate the recycling—to have it thrown in the garbage is unacceptable,” said Cohen, who promptly called her landlord, Nick Gill.
Says Gill: “We end up paying thousands of dollars a year for the separate recycling pickups. We sure as heck are paying for it to happen, and we expect it to happen.”
But on the same day, back in March, when the Bowie’s crews trashed all the recyclables in sight, a guy emerges from the back door of a pizza joint, a few doors away from the bookstore. He has a bag of trash, which he places in one of the recently emptied Dumpsters labeled as “cardboard only.” Why? The Dumpsters are usually overflowing, he says, so people just put the trash wherever they can find room—even if that means using the recycling bins.
When asked about his disposal choice, he backs away as he speaks. He doesn’t want to be quoted.
Jason Cherkis and Justin Moyer contributed to this story.