Chapter Pushes DPW to Improve Waste-Reduction

Testimony of Susan Schorr
Chair, Sierra Club DC Chapter Zero Waste Committee
before the
Department of Transportation and the Environment Committee

Budget Oversight Hearing for the Department of Public Works
March 25, 2022

Chairperson Cheh and members of the Committee, my name is Susan Schorr, and I’m the chair of the Sierra Club DC Chapter’s Zero Waste Committee. The Sierra Club is the nation’s oldest and largest environmental advocacy group. We have 3,000 dues-paying members in DC, and our top priority is combating climate change and moving towards a clean energy economy. Thank you Councilmember Cheh for convening this meeting today and for being an environmental champion for the District of Columbia.

As we have stated in our testimony for the Department of Public Works (DPW) Oversight Hearing1 earlier this year, our primary concern remains the lack of committed leadership for sustainability and innovative waste reduction at DPW and the Office of Waste Diversion (OWD). As the District seeks a new DPW director, the Sierra Club, together with other environmental organizations across the District, has submitted to your office—as well as to other council members on this committee—a list of qualifications and questions that should be posed to any candidate. We would welcome an update on the hiring process.

We also have several questions after reviewing the proposed budget.

Jumpstart renovation of the Benning Rd. Waste Transfer Station

During the February 8th DPW oversight hearing, we noted our dismay that apparently some  $32 million in funds allocated for Benning Rd Transfer Station upgrades had not been spent. We don’t recall receiving any updates from DPW on this fiscal year’s funds. Now, the Executive Summary of the Mayor’s FY23 Proposed Budget and Financial Plan includes an investment of “$68  million to complete the full modernization of the Benning Road Transfer Station, including remediating environmental and safety issues at the site, replacing the current facility, and creating new citywide capabilities to divert waste from landfills or incineration.”2

  • While we fully support the improvements to the Benning Road Transfer Station, there is no time to be wasted in making these improvements. This has become more worrisome with the Fort Totten Waste Transfer Station scheduled to close to bulk and residential drop off for 6 months starting April 2nd.3

    • Can DPW report if there is  any update on improvements to Benning Rd funded for this fiscal year? 

    • Has DPW begun to spend the $32 million in FY22 Benning Rd funds?  

  • Is the FY23 allocation of $68 million an appropriate amount in light of current allocations? We would welcome DPW sharing information on the plans for spending this money, including when work is scheduled to begin for both FY allocations, and what specific modifications are planned for each.

  • Finally, when does DPW estimate that this property will be functional for receiving waste and recycling?

Procure the Benning Rd Pepco Property

Along these lines, Councilmember Cheh, you mentioned at the February Oversight Hearing that Pepco is selling a property adjacent to the Benning Road Transfer Station and suggested that this property could become a composting facility for the District. The DC Compost Feasibility Study of 2017 noted that the cost of transferring organic waste to composting sites outside the District is very high and it would be better to process it within the District to save money, create local jobs, and keep the value of the resulting compost.4 The Sierra Club has long noted that without addressing organic waste (including a curbside composting program), the District will never reach its 80% waste diversion goal by 2032. Furthermore, we are concerned by DPW and the OWD’s plans for implementing a viable composting plan.

  • Is DPW pursuing the acquisition of this property—or is the agency putting off any decision about composting until its organics study is completed?  Properties such as the Pepco land are difficult to come by in the District. We are concerned that by not acting now to acquire this property, DPW is just implementing one more tactic to avoid the implementation of a curbside composting program in DC. 

  • Could DPW share the expected cost of the Benning Road property so Council can ensure funds are available for its purchase? If DPW plans to delay implementation of the Transfer Station updates, could some of the available funds this year be used for the Pepco property acquisition?  Of course, we would not suggest this if DPW plans to move on improvements to the transfer station. 

  • Does any movement on the development of a residential composting program rest on the results of the Organics Study (see below) that DPW and OWD have been delaying?

Implement source separation and the organic waste management plan

The FY 2023 Proposed Budget notes a reduction of recurring budget in the amount of $272,766 to support Zero Waste source separation and outreach, and $100,000 to support Organic Waste Management.”5 As we noted in our testimony to the February oversight hearing, our understanding was that these funds were to be used for several expenditures required by the 2020 Zero Waste Omnibus Amendment Act, including 

  • establishing a collection point for source-separated glass by January 1, 2022;

  • training and outreach to janitorial staff and property managers on source separation; and

  • development of a comprehensive organic waste management plan by January 1, 2023. 

To our knowledge, none of these goals have been met nor are on track to be met. We would greatly appreciate it if this hearing could shed light on whether and how DPW has used the funds appropriated in FY22 and whether additional funds are needed to achieve these goals in FY23. 

  • We have found no information about a glass collection site or even plans to create one. Currently, glass from the District is not recycled. We are wasting money paying for broken glass to be hauled for use as daily landfill cover, rather than selling high quality separated glass for recycling. It’s time to establish permanent separated glass collection sites in all wards available 24/7 in areas residents pass in their daily lives, such as metro stations or area grocery stores. We are not certain whether the FY23 Proposed Budget includes funding for such services.

    • What is the status of this program?

  • We are not aware of any programs to train janitorial staff and property managers on source separation, which is critical for DC to meet its waste diversion goals. 

    • Again, what is the status of this program?

  • We continue to be concerned about DPW missing the January 1, 2023 deadline for development of a comprehensive organic waste management plan, especially since DPW indicated during the February oversight hearing that it would miss the deadline.6 We request an updated timeline for the implementation of this study.

Let us—the District’s environmental community—help expedite these processes and studies. Collectively, we have a wealth of experience with organic waste management. We would be pleased to review the terms of reference and analyze the bidders to help select qualified experts to prepare this important plan on a timely basis. We also have expertise on glass recycling and environmental training programs.  

Under the Zero Waste Omnibus Amendment Act of 2020, large grocery stores and universities will be required to separate and compost all back-of-house food waste beginning January 1, 2023. Addressing the commercial and institutional sector is critical for meeting DC’s waste diversion goals. Non-residential sources represent nearly 70% of DC’s organic waste—an estimated 163,001 out of 236,071 tons in 2023.7 We understand that DPW secured an EPA grant to train and certify entities for food waste diversion. 

  • Have any additional funds been committed to ensure that this deadline can be met? 

Diverting this much organic waste would require significantly more composting capacity than is currently available in the region, further emphasizing the urgency of developing new sites, such as the property adjacent to the Benning Rd Transfer Station. Perhaps DPW should also consider applying for a USDA Community Compost and Food Waste Reduction Cooperative Aggreement8 to create more neighborhood drop-off stations or composting sites or to meet other challenges of processing DC’s organic waste. 

Meeting and Exceeding Fleet Targets

In April 2018, the District released its Sustainable DC 2.0 Plan. Under the Transportation section, Target 4.2 says: “Except in special cases, the District Government will require all agencies to purchase zero to low-emission vehicles and will prioritize placing green vehicles that spend most of their time in one area (such as police cruisers and buses) in areas with high concentrations of vulnerable populations.” The document identifies DPW as a lead agency in this effort, in partnership with DDOT and DOEE. 

  • The Sierra Club would like to know if this requirement is being taken seriously as DPW helps other agencies procure new vehicles. 

Given the District’s goal of moving towards full adoption of zero-emissions vehicles (ZEV), as reflected in the Clean Energy DC (CEDC) Act, DPW has a key role to play in meeting and exceeding the District's fleet targets. We should not be purchasing any more vehicles that contribute to global emissions and reduce local air quality.

End the Covanta Incinerator Contract

Instead of striving to become a national zero waste leader, the current District government appears to be fully committed to continuing its contractual relationship with the Covanta incinerator in Lorton, VA. This method of destructive disposal poses adverse environmental and health effects—especially for the income challenged and black and brown communities adjacent to this facility. For this reason, we oppose extending the Covanta contract.

We were also concerned by DPW’s characterization in their cover letter to the Mayor to its Sustainability Assessment of Disposal Options (December 2021) that the environmental community’s  concerns were adequately addressed.

Fund public recycling, including in DC public housing, a task force to coordinate waste management in all government-managed buildings and create a dedicated Department of Reuse, Recovery, Recycling and Waste Management

We were also dismayed to learn in the DPW Oversight Hearing that DPW does not provide recycling in public housing. We call upon the Council to rectify this environmental injustice by funding equal access to curbside recycling for residents of public housing enjoyed by residents of other multi-family housing facilities.

We have also noticed that public space recycling bins no longer appear to be available in many neighborhoods across the District. 

  • Is their disappearance due to lack of funding by DPW or neighborhood or business association projects? 

If this is a question of DPW funding, we believe the time is right for Council to ensure the return of these bins, along with regular pick up of public trash and recycling bins. 

All of these measures could help improve our recycling rates. The DPW-funded Desktop Waste Characterization Study issued in March 2021 projected, for example, that we will produce nearly 143,000 tons of plastic trash next year from single-family, multi-family and non-residential sources, but recycle only 6.5 % of it.9 Clearly, we have a long way to go.

We were also concerned to learn, in the Department of General Services (DGS) Oversight Hearing, that there is no formal coordination mechanism for the various government agencies responsible for different elements of waste management in government-managed buildings and facilities including DC Public Schools. One agency is responsible for trash pickup, another for recycling and no one seems to be providing source-separation for organic waste, paper, glass, and other types of waste that could be diverted from landfills and incinerators. 

We call upon the Council to fund a task force to coordinate waste management, with the goal of both diverting and preventing waste in district government buildings and facilities.  Indeed, based on DPW’s failure to embrace waste diversion measures, we believe the time is ripe to consider creating a Department of Reuse, Recovery, Recycling and Waste Management to ensure that we become a national zero waste and environmental justice leader, meet our waste diversion goals and reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions. 

How can we still make the 80 % waste diversion goal a reality?

Once again, meeting the District’s waste diversion goals, comes down to the need for visionary leadership.

In short, if the District:

  • funded curbside composting; 

  • had a composting site at Benning Rd.;

  • had permanent compost and glass drop off sites throughout the city; 

  • ensured that large retail, colleges, universities, hospitals, restaurants, and other entities separated and composted back-of-house food waste; 

  • improved and enforced recycling in non-residential buildings, public housing, public schools, and on public streets; 

  • promoted reusable food service ware for onsite and takeout dining; and 

  • banned plastic grocery and produce bags while supporting low-income residents to acquire reusable grocery and produce bags; 

then meeting our waste diversion goal becomes doable. 

Councilmember Cheh, we realize this may be the last DPW Budget Hearing over which you will preside. In closing, please allow me to again thank you for your years of environmental leadership and serving as the leading environmental champion in the district. We look forward to continuing our advocacy in support of realizing your zero waste vision. Thank you.

  1. Sierra Club, DC Chapter written testimony to DPW Oversight Hearing, February 8, 2022
  2. DC Government FY 2023 Proposed Budget and Financial Plan, Executive Summary, p 62
  3. Fort Totten Transfer Station to Close after April 2nd for 6 Months of Repairs” 
  4. District of Columbia Compost Feasibility Study of 2017, p. 36-37
  5. Ibid, Vol. 4 p.233
  6. During the February 8, 2022 DPW Oversight Hearing, Mr. Blake Adams, Office of Waste Diversion, indicated the report would likely be issued “around this time next year”, i.e. February 2023. The 2020 Zero Waste Omnibus Amendment Act sets a January 1, 2023 deadline for the final report –following input and comments from the public.
  7. The District of Columbia Desktop Waste Characteristic Study, March 2021, commissioned by the Department of Public Works
  8. RFP anticipated shortly: (Urban Agriculture Cooperative Agreements
  9. Desktop Waste Characterization Study