Chapter Urges DPW to Demonstrate Action on Zero Waste

Testimony of Susan Schorr,

Chair, Sierra Club DC Chapter Zero Waste Committee

before the

Department of Transportation and the Environment Committee
Public Roundtable on Waste Diversion Efforts in the District

November 7, 2022


Chairperson Cheh and members of the Committee, my name is Susan Schorr and I’m the chair of the Sierra Club DC Chapter 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 priorities are combating climate change and moving toward a clean energy economy. Thank you Chairperson Cheh for convening this roundtable today and for being an environmental champion for the District of Columbia. We recognize that this may be the last Zero Waste hearing under your able leadership. Thank you again for your environmental service.

I’d like to use this testimony to highlight some questions for Acting Director Carter of the Department of Public Works (DPW) and to flag some issues for those who will continue the Chairperson’s legacy on zero waste in the District.

We have the same questions about the status of funded waste diversion programs and activities identified in the public roundtable notice and look forward to hearing updates from DPW on these programs. 

We would also like to commend DPW for organizing two series of community outreach sessions, in August and October, as part of the development process of the long-awaited Zero Waste DC Plan. We hope that DPW’s level of engagement continues as the draft Zero Waste DC Framework becomes a Plan and, more important, for its implementation. We note that while DPW has provided over 30 hours of public engagement of the consultants in the request for proposal (RFP), they provided no opportunity to engage directly with DC’s environmental community, including their absence at the September 22nd Zero Waste DC Plan hearing/briefing organized by the DC Environmental Network (DCEN). Our only opportunity to engage with the consultants on the plan has been through community meetings with an interested but less-informed public. We understand, Chairperson Cheh, that you have written a letter to the Acting Director noting this oversight and stating that you expect the consultants to be at the hearing today. Thank you. We sincerely hope they are listening.

A clear consensus among District residents—across all Wards—emerged from the public outreach sessions on the zero waste services the District needs to implement. This includes curbside compost pickup that includes meat and dairy waste to contribute to rodent control, convenient and accessible compost drop off sites, a beverage container deposit program, banning single-use plastic grocery bags and takeout containers, adoption of reusable food ware by food service entities for both onsite dining and takeout, glass recycling, reuse and repair of household appliances and devices, and meaningful outreach and education about these measures and what can and cannot be recycled in the District and the enforcement of these regulations. The environmental community has been proposing all of these and Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) for many years now. While PAYT is less understood by the public and often wrongly portrayed as unfair to low-income families, we also heard an openness to this highly effective waste diversion measure, provided it’s coupled with community education, incentives, and outreach.

We are very pleased to see that almost all of these measures are now included in the draft Zero Waste DC Framework published by DPW and shared by their highly qualified consultants, Ruth Abbe Associates. We are concerned however that a beverage container deposit program has not become part of the framework, despite the number of residents that supported it in the community outreach sessions. A beverage container deposit program will address the trash littering and illegal dumping crisis in Wards 5, 7, and 8 was one of the key recommendations the environmental community submitted to DPW available in this link.    

We also wish to reiterate the need to move quickly to ban single-use plastic bags, especially for the Councilmembers that will continue the Chairperson’s environmental legacy. We understand that DOEE, which receives approximately $2,000,000 annually from the bag fee, is reluctant to give up this funding source. But it’s essential for us to look at the full picture. The true cost of the bag fee is that it fuels the injection of at least 40 million grocery bags into the waste stream each year. 40 million! That is not a sustainable practice. It’s perverse that programs to clean up litter are funded by the sale of a polluting product.

In addition to advocating for these specific measures, we’re also worried about what comes next with the Zero Waste DC Plan. We retain a healthy skepticism that the inclusion of waste diversion measures in the Plan will lead to their actual implementation. We hope our skepticism will be proved misplaced and would welcome reassurance by DPW in this roundtable. 

Our understanding is that following Plan publication in the spring, DPW will conduct a feasibility study to analyze the expense of implementation. Since many of the measures are already known, we would urge DPW, or its consultants, to begin gathering cost estimates and proxy data from our neighbors and other jurisdictions with relevant experience. For example, we know that Prince George’s and Arlington Counties have engaged in public education about composting, completed curbside compost pilots, and now offer curbside compost as a regular service for their residential customers. Arlington County has achieved about 40% residential customer participation. 

Their experience should, along with common sense, inform the District’s feasibility study. This includes any efficiencies that can be realized from adopting zero waste measures. Costs associated with providing municipal support for reusable food ware programs, as outlined in my September 22nd testimony, should be balanced by savings realized by  reduced trash hauling expenses. Reusable food ware prevents single-use plastic waste from happening. No plastic waste, no hauling needed. The framework calls for phased implementation of certain measures. Budget estimates should be tied to when funding is required and what can be achieved under current laws and measures that will require new legislation. 

Let’s be frank. Any District agency that wishes to kill implementation needs only to develop an inflated budget. We would appreciate assurances in this roundtable that the DPW feasibility study will take a reasonable cost-estimation approach rather than preparing a gold-plated cost estimate that will be rejected out-of-hand. 

Similarly, the initial phases of implementation should focus on areas over which DPW currently has legal jurisdiction: single family homes, multi-family structures of three or fewer units and public waste collection bins. There’s much to be done and much demand for zero waste services in this space. Implementation can and should be expanded as DPW—or different agencies—acquire legal jurisdiction over zero waste implementation in larger multi-family and non-residential buildings. 

Focusing initially where DPW has jurisdiction would enable the District to move from our current status as zero waste laggards to national zero waste leaders. The residential waste diversion rate still hovers in the low 20th percentile range. Wouldn’t it make more sense for DPW to both provide basic waste reduction services to those DC residences for which it is responsible and implement existing requirements under the 2020 Zero Waste Omnibus Amendment Act?

The Sierra Club raised concerns about the lack of implementation of the 2020 Zero Waste Act before this Committee in January and February of this year. We’ve seen no evidence of janitorial training on source separation, glass separation, or raising awareness of the back-of-house composting requirements that go into effect on January 1, 2023 for large retail businesses and universities and colleges. Instead, these measures are now included in the draft Zero Waste DC Framework without details on their timeline for implementation. We hope that this roundtable can shed some light on when these requirements will be implemented.

Fundamentally, zero waste measures will require behavior change from residents, businesses, and government agencies alike. While this doesn’t have to be expensive, we need to assure funding beyond postcard campaigns, to engage the public at neighborhood festivals, educate children who can bring zero waste lessons home to their parents, and leverage the use of social media.   

DPW can also begin efforts to bring the Mayor on board before the fiscal year 2024 budget process begins and explain how DPW is striving for a reasonable budget and why these measures should be funded. DPW can also explain that a properly developed Zero Waste DC Plan obviates the need for a separate waste management plan. They are one and the same. Zero waste is waste management. That’s what we should prioritize. Unlike incineration which does not achieve waste reduction and harms neighbors in Lorton, Virginia.  

Let’s not hold up zero waste adoption any longer. We’ve fallen far behind in meeting our goal of 80% waste diversion by 2032. This goal has become even more critical. According to a recent report, “Zero waste strategies are the easiest way to rapidly and cheaply bring down emissions, while building climate resilience, creating jobs, and promoting thriving local economies.”*  “Better waste management is a climate change solution staring us in the face. It doesn’t require flashy or expensive new technology—it’s just about paying more attention to what we produce and consume, and how we deal with it when it is no longer needed.”* For the District, zero waste also means advancing environmental justice for the residents of Wards 5, 7 and 8. We would welcome DPW’s commitment to achieving these goals.  

DC is a leader in so many areas—providing a guiding light on how we can live sustainably. Let’s make DPW a part of that light.

Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, Zero Waste to Zero Emissions at