More Composting, Eliminating Black Plastic, and Bottle Deposit Law Would Help DC Achieve Zero Waste Targets

Committee on Public Works and Operations Performance Oversight Hearing
Wednesday, February 7, 2024


Councilmember Nadeau, thank you for the opportunity to testify at this Committee on Public Works and Operations Performance Oversight Hearing on the Department of Public Works (DPW). My name is Susan Schorr, and I am the chair of the Sierra Club District of Columbia Chapter’s Zero Waste Committee. The Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with millions of members and supporters. The DC Chapter has approximately 3,000 dues-paying members in the District and many thousands of supporters.

Appreciation for hiring a seasoned zero waste professional to lead OWD

When we testified before this Committee’s Public Roundtable last year, the issue was filling the post of Office of Waste Diversion (OWD) Program Manager. We are grateful to you, Councilmember Nadeau, and to DPW Director Timothy Spriggs, for heeding our call to ensure that DPW hired an experienced zero waste professional to lead the OWD to meet the Sustainable DC goal of achieving 80 percent waste reduction by 2032, less than eight years from today.

We welcome the selection of Mr. John Johnson to lead OWD; he brings the District zero waste program experience from New York City, including the successful implementation of zero waste practices in public housing. He has shown an openness to collaborate with environmental organizations on zero waste issues. Although much remains to be done, and many details are unknown, Mr. Johnson recently reported (at last month’s DPW Quarterly Stakeholders Meeting) that in its initial months last year, the curbside compost pilot diverted 600,000 pounds of food waste from landfill or incineration; that DPW plans to seek funding in the Fiscal Year 2025 budget to continue curbside compost services and pilot compost drop-off bins that would be available to District residents 24/7; and that OWD is working on providing recycling to public housing residents. While we would like to learn more, we support funding for the continuation and expansion of compost services in the District. Other promising developments include OWD’s research on zero waste campuses in California in preparation for the Benning Road Transfer Station renovation project; an oral report on the state of commercial compost programs; and interest in mattress stewardship programs.  

Need for OWD to share more details and develop working groups

These developments are promising. That said, we request that additional details on implementing measures that are being planned be shared both with environmental stakeholders and the public and that collaboration methods be developed for joint work on key issues. We need to ensure that curbside compost services will be expanded to include new households beyond those participating in the pilot. Curbside composting opens composting and waste reduction up to a much broader set of District residents. In addition, while the food waste drop-offs at local farmers markets have been very successful, they are limited in the type of waste that they will receive. There are important questions to be resolved, including:

  • Does DPW have a timeline for bringing curbside compost services in-house to be performed by union labor?
  • Will curbside compost collection include yard waste as is done by Arlington County?
  • Will the new pilot for 24/7 compost drop-off bins ensure at least one bin in every Ward and timely pickup?
  • Will the bins be located in areas with high foot traffic?
  • Will OWD publish written reports on the implementation and enforcement of the commercial compost requirements in the Zero Waste Omnibus Amendment Act of 2020?
  • Will DPW provide a briefing on what they learned about zero waste facilities from their California research visit?
  • Will DPW pursue new legislation to extend compost collection requirements in all multifamily housing whether private or public; ensure enforcement of recycling collection by public housing building managers; and develop a mattress stewardship program? (Acting on mattress stewardship is especially timely given that such bills have already been introduced in Virginia and Maryland (bill number to be assigned this week).

In addition to quarterly stakeholders meetings, which we appreciate, we would urge working groups or task forces – like the one set up for the Benning Road Trash Transfer Station – be established for key planned zero waste measures, but with wider participation from a range of environmental and environmental justice organizations. We appreciate that Mr. Johnson has offered to meet with Sierra Club advocates to discuss such issues.

As we testified last year, the Healthy Schools Act, as codified in § 38–825.01 (a)(1)(J) of the District Code, calls for DC Public Schools to establish a composting program. We would appreciate it if DPW could report on the status of that program or invite the Department of Public Schools to report. We have had no updates since our request last year. It’s important for this committee to understand what diversion rate DC Public Schools have achieved thanks to compost programs. Our public schools and other government agencies and facilities impact whether we achieve our waste diversion goals.

Time to publish the Zero Waste DC Plan & Waste Diversion reports; update the Mayor’s List of Recyclables and Compostables, and pass regulations requiring recyclables and compostables to be recycled and composted

We understand from OWD that both the Zero Waste DC Plan and a series of annual Waste Diversion reports (dating back to 2019) have been finalized by DPW and are pending final review by the Mayor’s Office. We also repeat our request from last year that OWD update the Mayor’s List of Recyclables and Compostables (Mayor’s List), and make determinations on what is and isn’t recyclable based not only on regional recycling processing ability but also on what the Municipal Recycling Facility (MRF) used by the District sends to be recycled and made into a new product. Otherwise, the MRF could be charging the District for processing materials for which there is no end-market. Based on other jurisdictions, we’re concerned that black plastic and gable-top cartons are not actually being recycled.  

  • The Zero Waste DC Plan was developed through the tireless input of members of the public and environmental stakeholders, including Sierra Club DC Chapter volunteers. The Mayor’s office has had ample time to review this report, considering the last draft shared with the public dates back to December 2022, and it was sent to the Mayor shortly thereafter. Even though the Mayor referred to the Zero Waste DC Plan in her announcement of the Carbon Free DC Strategy at COP28[1] in Dubai last December, it remains unpublished. If news of the Zero Waste DC Plan was shared in Dubai, shouldn’t the Plan itself be shared with District residents?
  • No Waste Diversion report has been issued since 2018, even though DPW has prepared them.
  • We call upon this Committee to intercede, if necessary, so the Zero Waste DC Plan and Waste Diversion reports can be shared with the public and used as a guideline for DPW and DOEE budget preparation and program implementation.
  • Consumers are faced with an ever-changing array of packaging materials, often marked with recycling symbols regardless of whether the packaging can actually be recycled. Government agencies bear the responsibility to keep the public informed on what is really recycled in their area.
  • We urge DPW to ask the Elkridge, MD MRF, which processes recycling from the District, to indicate where they send materials to be sold for recycling and to remove from the Mayor’s List those materials which are not sold.
  • A 2020 analysis concluded that when it comes to plastic, only PET #1, HDPE #2 and some Polypropylene #5 can be recycled in the United States.  This is consistent with what an Elkridge MRF video says: for plastic, sort your materials by shape and only recycle plastic bottles, jars and jugs. It is also consistent with black plastic bans in Newton, Massachusetts and Minneapolis, Minnesota and other jurisdictions’ decisions to not accept gable-top cartons in their recycling.
  • As we testified before this Committee last year, updating the Mayor’s List has the potential to reduce plastic and toxic pollution. Section 403 of the Sustainable DC Omnibus Amendment Act of 2014 requires restaurants to serve either on recyclable or compostable food ware. If black plastic food ware were no longer characterized as recyclable, it no longer meets this requirement. Updating the Mayor’s List to reflect this reality – if enforced – would reduce black plastic pollution.
  • Like the District, Minneapolis also requires restaurants serving on disposable food ware to only use recyclable or compostable food ware. But Minneapolis goes further to make these requirements effective. Minneapolis regulations require restaurants actually recycle or compost the disposable food ware it uses. In practice, restaurants collect and then haul recyclables separately and do the same with compostables. Through this practice, materials are actually diverted from landfill or incineration.
  • The Minneapolis Green to Go website states: “Food businesses must provide collection bins for each type of material used. Recyclable materials must be recycled. Compostable plastics must be composted.”
  • Sadly, in the District, many fast-casual restaurants provide a single trash can for customers where materials that could have been diverted get mixed with trash, condemning the full contents to be buried or burned. This will not help us to achieve our waste diversion goals.
  • It’s time to set a short but firm deadline for publication of an updated Mayor’s List and to establish requirements for food service entities serving on recyclable and compostable materials to provide separate bins for each and then have them hauled to recycling and composting facilities. 

Support for a Strong and Equitable Bottle Bill

We also advocate for additional measures to enhance the District’s zero waste success.

The Sierra Club DC Chapter supports a strong and equitable beverage container deposit-return law for the District. The Sierra Club is proud to be one of 16 members of the Return, Refund, Recycle Coalition for DC, 3RC for DC.

Sierra Club volunteers spent much of 2022 conducting brand audits of beverage container pollution at cleanups in Wards 7 and 8. Thanks to this work, we know which companies’ containers are trashing the District. The top polluters, not surprisingly, include some of the most vocal opponents to bottle bills like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. Cleanup volunteers, including Councilmember Nadeau and her family, collected piles and piles of littered bottles and cans. Cleanup sights look like someone opened a spigot allowing an endless stream of bottles and cans to be poured out. Sadly, these scenes are repeated at site after site across the District, year after year. 

In 2023, Sierra Club volunteers joined our 3RC partners to talk with District residents about this blight on our beautiful City. We tabled at community events in extreme heat. We marched in Fourth of July parades. We talked with people at the DC State Fair, a large music festival, and met with faith-based and civic leaders. It’s safe to say collectively 3RC members conducted thousands of conversations on this issue. We showed folks pictures from the cleanups and brand audits. We demonstrated – through simulated reverse vending machines we made from cardboard boxes – how people can return containers and get their deposits back. We asked them to sign our petition in favor of a strong bottle bill. And they did. We found overwhelming support for a strong and equitable bottle bill. Some people shared that they’d seen deposit-return laws work in states like Michigan and Oregon where they lived before they moved to the District. I spoke with several older Anacostia residents who recalled picking up glass Coke bottles as kids and trading them in for the deposit money. This tells us that not only do bottle bills work elsewhere, they used to work here before the beverage industry dismantled one of the most effective zero waste measures ever designed. 

It’s time to bring a deposit-return program back to DC. We need it. The public supports it. Unlike some of our other challenges, there is a proven solution for beverage container pollution. Neighboring Maryland has just introduced a bottle bill in Annapolis (HB 735 and SB 642). As the Washington Post recently wrote about cleanups in the District, Offering cash to get plastic bottles out of the waste stream is a simple, effective solution.”  We agree and know it will also work for aluminum cans and glass bottles.

DPW to keep its pledge to clean along DC-295

We also express our support for Ward 8 Woods’ efforts to ensure that the grassy median and shoulders and wooded areas that line DC-295 are cleaned regularly. We understand that DPW has promised Ward 8 Woods to maintain these areas and clear them of dumped tires and other litter. We call on DPW to keep its pledge and establish a regular cleaning schedule.

Electrification of the DC Fleet
The Climate Commitment Amendment Act of 2022, which strengthened the District’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction goals, requires all vehicle purchases or leases by the District government to be zero-emissions, starting in 2026, as part of the District’s goal to be carbon neutral by 2045.

We would like to see a plan with benchmarks from DPW toward transitioning its fleet of over 3,000 vehicles to all zero-emission vehicles by 2045.

Although DPW’s Fleet Management Administration provided an FY22 fleet inventory, it would help to have a publicly available report - or better yet, an up-to-date dashboard - that breaks down vehicles by fuel type and indicates progress toward electrification and GHG emission reduction goals. Information about electric vehicle acquisitions should also be provided to update the “DC Fleet Management / Environmental Responsibility” webpage, which only mentions “alternative fuel vehicles” acquired in 2011 and 2012.

We would like to know how many of DPW’s electric charging stations allocated for in the FY24 budget have been installed. We would also like to know the status of DPW’s “Electrification Shop Setup” project, also allocated for in the FY24 budget, for the infrastructure and trained staffing levels needed to meet the District’s climate requirements.

Parking Enforcement

Tragically, 2023 was the District’s deadliest year for traffic fatalities in 16 years, despite the launch of Vision Zero in 2015. DC’s 2022 Vision Zero update notes that “many agencies share the responsibility to ensure safe operations on our streets,” and DPW plays a key role by enforcing parking violations. Repeat parking violators are often dangerous and reckless drivers.

This committee should assess DPW’s enforcement of parking violations, by types of violation, enforcement, and number of offenses per violator, to determine how effectively DPW is focusing on the most egregious law violators, who are responsible for an outsized proportion of deadly crashes.

Thank you Councilmember Nadeau for convening this performance oversight hearing and for the opportunity to testify.