Washington’s sobering recycling stats — and what to do about it

Trash in the Anacostia. Yuck. Photo from A Clean Life.

Trash in the Anacostia. Yuck. Photo from A Clean Life.

In a recent spread on how “green” the D.C. region is going, the Post pulled out some stunning statistics on recycling — a responsible behavior that has been pushed on my generation for at least 20 years.

Of D.C. and the area’s most populous jurisdictions, the District ranked dead last, with a recycling rate of 25.2 percent. That is below both Calvert and St. Mary’s counties and way below the rest of the Big four: Prince George’s recycles 37.6 percent of its waste, Fairfax 40 percent and Montgomery 42 percent.

That’s not to say the District doesn’t have any “green” (is there any other moniker more played out?) cred. But in a city where on the same block you can find recycling compactors and people throwing their chicken bones out of their car, it’s apparent that there are some things we do well, and some we don’t.


1. The bag tax. If Montgomery is copying D.C., the city is doing something right. Montgomery just passed an even more sweeping bag tax than the one passed last year in D.C. (and they only have one river to worry about), and the District will likely eventually adopt those modifications. Keeping plastic bags out of the rivers is one of the most obvious and easiest things D.C. can do. Somehow, despite seemingly always declining plastic bags, I still have more than I know what to do with, so the law could probably use further teeth.

2. Smart planning/nice layout. Washington is a walkable city with a great bikesharing system and certainly one of the top five transit systems in the country. Washingtonians use less energy per capita than their suburban counterparts because they live in smaller houses that are closer to shopping, schools and workplaces. Blah blah blah, right? Well, it’s true.

3. A renewed focus on litter prevention. Prince of Petworth reported the Police Department’s Fourth District is about to ramp up littering enforcement, though this is a borderline jeer. Why is a special initiative required to simply enforce the law? Still, better than not doing it. I say fine the crud out of anyone brazen enough to toss trash on our streets.


1. Supercans. Why, when I lived in Barracks Row, did the city pick up trash twice as frequently as recycling? Even without a garbage disposal, the majority of my waste was recyclable. But instead of just having it easily carted away, I had to hide some of my recycling in my neighbors’ bins. Trust me, you don’t want to get caught doing this; it’s embarrassing.

1a). Public trash cans/recycling bins. There need to be more, period. Especially recycling.

2. Littering. Despite my praise for attempting bettering enforcement, the laziness of people flicking all manner of trash into our streets is depressing. I find myself watching people who are obviously carrying waste to see what they will do. “In the trash can, in the trash can, in the trash can” I think to myself as I watch them. It’s about 50/50 between people tossing ‘bage on the ground or in the can. The most infuriating thing: Watching someone brick an attempted throwaway, only to then leave the trash on the ground falling a missed shot. COME ON!

3. Bottle deposit. This is the biggie. Most New Englanders and West Coasters are shocked and appalled that the District, Maryland and Virginia all lack bottle deposit laws. Here’s why we don’t have them:

– Beverage lobbyists will portray a bottle law as a tax (it isn’t. You pay 5 cents when you buy a bottle and get 5 cents when you return it).

– Due to the fact that we are talking about two states and a Congressional colony, there is little regional planning going on. Because of that, it’s unlikely all the jurisdictions would pass bottle deposit laws at the same time, leaving one to go it alone at first. If only D.C. has recycling, the city will have to prevent Virginia and Maryland people from trying to cash in the bottles that they never paid a deposit on. But Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont all have deposit laws, even though their libertarian sibling New Hampshire does not. They make it work, so why couldn’t D.C.?

– It’s more complicated than the bag tax. Depositories must be established, which requires installation of new machinery and technology. Convenience stores will whine that it hurts their sales. And cans nationwide will have to be relabeled with D.C. recycling laws (I might have just made that up).

SO WHAT. The benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Upon putting out a box of bottles for pickup in Portland, a hustling bottle man will take your nickel bottles off your hands faster than a mill on the Androscoggin can close. And while that’s kind of annoying, when every other piece of trash is all of a sudden worth a nickel, I think we can all be OK with people combing through trash to grab what should have been recycled in the first place. Look out the window on the eastern leg of the Red Line in D.C. and you will see thousands upon thousands of empty bottles and cans. If there was a bottle deposit law, someone would only see dollar signs.

There is much to do to cut down on D.C.’s pollution and up its recycling rates, but fortunately we do not have the lingering brownfield developments and the accompanying pollution that many former industrial titans do. What we do have is a city that is often willing to try new things, and now’s a good time to try these: Enact a bottle deposit law, crack down (hard) on litterers and increase the amount of trash cans and recycling receptacles all over the city.

It won’t be easy, but together we can do it. We are after all, as Vince likes to say, “One City.”

This entry was posted in Maryland, Rants, The City, Virginia and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Washington’s sobering recycling stats — and what to do about it

  1. Carsonata says:

    That picture of the Anacostia River is simply shocking. It seems like such an easy thing to do, in a world where nothing else is simple, easy, or appealing. But putting trash in a can, or recycling a piece of cardboard, takes no extra effort and just makes sense.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s