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DC Programs to Help Residents to Recycle, But . . .

By P.L. Wolff

And, it’s that word “But” that leads us to our commentary here. While DC government, particularly the public works department (DPW), has implemented in recent years excellent programs initiated as a result of legislation introduced by Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, who also chairs the city council’s transportation and environment committee, the availability of information for residents needing to know about the intricacies of recycling and how to correctly comply seems to be one of the District’s best kept secrets. This is very unfortunate indeed.

For example, a few years ago the council enacted member Cheh’s bill to establish a paint recycling program (more on that below). Who knew, besides the “insiders” –- those in the paint business?! And, two years ago, again thanks to the council member, there was established within DPW the Office of Waste Diversion with responsibility for the “Zero Waste DC” website, an amazingly useful tool. But again, who knew other than the insiders? As a homeowner, this commentator has no recollection of ever seen information put through the mail slot or sent by actual mail.

More recently, in early June, the mayor, in tandem with the director of the public library system, initiated a six-month trial program for residents to be able to drop off at neighborhood branch libraries a wide variety of electronic items, including TVs and peripherals, computers and peripherals, cable and satellite receivers, game consoles, to name but some.

Stepping back for a moment, on and off over the years we have queried both politicians and bureaucrats about why there is no provision for residents needing to dispose of electronics as well as hazardous chemicals and paint could not call 311 to arrange for special pick-ups just as they can do for bulk trash like mattresses and broken furniture. Responses always ranged from, “it’s not in the budget” to “I don’t know” to “you can take these items to the Ft. Totten transfer station.”

But for DC to have that trash transfer station (in the pre- euphemism days it was simply the dump) be the only answer is inane. Located as it is in something of a no-man’s land between Ft. Totten to the east and Connecticut Avenue to the west and Catholic University to the south, the only viable way to access it is by car; there is no public transportation and the nearest Metro is the Van Ness Red Line stop and to walk from there is quite a a dubious hike. How anyone who never gave this problem a thought would have solved the problem of residents without cars mystifies us. Further, would they actually think anyone, especially the elderly or infirm, could possibly haul a big TV out there by themselves? And what about persons, even young and vigorous, carrying hazardous waste on Metro?

While we applaud these programs they can only serve as a temporary fix.

For example, Mayor Bowser’s announcement about the program with the branch libraries referenced only “collection events”; when we sought clarification from the library systems information officer it was made clear that one will not be able to drop by whenever to drop off electronics but will only be able to do so when the city’s energy and environment department, through its eCycle program, will station special bins at these branch libraries on days to be announced from time-to-time.

And, when we asked how will residents be informed of dates and times of those “collection events,” the answer was three-fold: through social media, by notices posted at branch libraries, and by news releases to the media (presumably us included).

But, one major flaw: no notification to actual residences -– presumably because nothing in the budget (hadn’t we heard that before?). Well, then, the city council needs to appropriate funds to cover the costs if the word is to be widely spread. Other than people with nothing better to do all day or those bored at work who are constantly trolling Facebook and its progeny (as opposed to actual working people), it won’t reach the numbers needed. So, too, the idea of relying on regular users of branch libraries to see and remember posted signs is dubious, let alone that only a very modest number of residents will even see those signs (notwithstanding that in an ideal DC world everyone ought to have a library card; the branch libraries these days are places of wonder). And, as for relying on press releases to the media, yes, all of us will print or announce a short news item, but only once, and almost nobody will remember.

As we started to prepare this commentary we reached out to Councilmember Cheh’s office and we were pleased to learn that some of our concerns fit in with solid waste environmental issues they are actively engaged with in anticipation of the council’s return in September. For example, Communications Director Kelly Whittier responded with an email in which she wrote that the “Councilmember and our legislative staff have prioritized really getting under the District’s challenges in waste management/the waste stream for this summer recess.”

Of special interest, given our focus here, was this: “I’ve put together an extensive starter memo on the topic, but perhaps one of the greatest challenges for our agencies has been communicating to residents the changing landscape of recycling. [Emphasis ours.] For example, many residents now know that they can recycle pizza boxes but do not know that all recycling must be either left loose in their bin or in paper bags. Those plastic recycling bags are now categorized as contamination and trash.”

But how many residents have even a clue about the “Zero Waste DC” website mentioned at the start of our commentary. Check it out –- it’s superb and extremely easy to use. If you don’t know whether you can put an old garden hose in your recycling bin, just enter the words “rubber hose” and you get an instant answer. Why haven’t we or any other householder we know even heard about this resource; why has DPW kept it such a secret? As above, it’s probably not because they want to keep it hidden, no doubt it’s about no money to spend on comprehensive and on-going public outreach.

Finally, we do commend the website that makes possible finding the huge numbers of hardware stores all over that will accept old paints for disposal thanks to another DC program initiated by Councilmember Cheh. All one has to do to find locations is to enter a zip code. There will be stores one would assume should be listed but are not; that is because some stores simply do not have the space where returned paints can be safely stored awaiting pick up. Again, who knew? Again, the answer is lack of funds for meaningful (if ever) public outreach at the start and now.

If the mayor and council are truly serious about full, total and informed public participation  in making DC a model for effective recycling, they must provide serious funding for public outreach –- yet even that is only a half-way solution: there needs to be sufficient funding to make possible actual electronic and hazardous waste pick-ups in the same manner as bulk trach a reality. No ifs, ands, and buts.