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Public Roundtable on Waste Management and Agency Operations at the Department of Public Works

Friday, October 9, 2020

Testimony of

Christopher Geldart

Director, Department of Public Works

 

Before the

Committee on Transportation and the Environment

Mary Cheh, Chairperson

Council of the District of Columbia

 

October 9, 2020

11:00 a.m.

Virtual Meeting Platform

John A. Wilson Building

1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20004

 

 

Introduction

Good morning, Chairperson Cheh and members of the Council. I am Christopher Geldart, Director of the DC Department of Public Works (DPW). Thank you for this opportunity to demonstrate how DPW is bringing Mayor Bowser’s vision of D.C. as a global sustainability leader to life. 

I would like to open my testimony by affirming  that the Department of Public Works is a forceful protector of the District’s environment through our policymaking and solid waste operations. My testimony provides verifiable evidence of our success. I also want to express my appreciation to Mayor Muriel Bowser for her continuing support for DPW and our leadership. 

Recently, the following concerns were raised about our commitment to meeting Mayor Bowser’s zero waste sustainability goals, including (1) a specific personnel action; (2) DPW leadership impeding progress towards sustainability goals; (3) a pilot program for a “variable rate pricing waste management system” (Pay-As-You-Throw); (4) the fees charged at the District’s transfer stations; and (5) waste incineration. I will address each item, except the personnel action which District Government policy prohibits discussing specific personnel actions. However, the remaining issues will be addressed throughout my testimony. 

DPW is committed to implementing Mayor Bowser’s Zero Waste mandate. I will present the  significant progress made to boost residential recycling, food waste composting and educational opportunities for residents and businesses to discover the importance of reducing waste.

As well, I will present the status of planned actions whose implementation was interrupted as we supported the District’s response to the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19.

 

Transfer Stations Operations 

Before I begin discussing waste diversion, I’d like to explain how DPW handles solid waste brought to the District’s transfer stations.  As you know, DPW operates two transfer stations, at Benning Road and Fort Totten.

DPW accepts municipal solid waste, recyclables and bulk trash from three sources. Those sources are private commercial haulers operating in the District, from residents directly through the residential drop off, e.g. household hazardous waste, e-cycling and document shredding, and trash and recyclables collected by District Government crews.

As of October 1, 2020, as required by the FY21 Budget Support Act of 2020, the cost for DPW to handle and dispose of a ton a municipal solid waste increased to $70.62.  That cost is the full-service cost to have DPW process, haul and dispose of waste at the Covanta Fairfax Waste to Energy Facility or a landfill for waste that cannot be processed at Covanta. To be clear, during my administration, DPW has not opposed raising the District’s tipping fee. Although the agency imposed a dramatic increase in the fee amount in 2019, it was our intention to increase it incrementally by 3 to 5 percent in following years. This incremental approach was based upon input from the smaller commercial haulers servicing multi-unit residences in the District and meant to ensure that residents could afford to absorb the passed-on costs each year while bringing the fee in line with neighboring jurisdictions.

As you are aware, DPW also provides service to two companies, Waste Management, Inc. and Republic Service, Inc., as a result of settlement agreements resolving litigation. The settlement agreements allow Waste Management and Republic to transload or bring in waste and recyclables to the District transfer stations and requires they haul out an equal tonnage of waste and recyclables for disposal at a facility of their choice.  As of October 1, 2020, per the annual adjustment based on the Consumer Price Index, the fee to transload a ton of trash and recyclables increased to $8.66.

The Waste Management settlement agreement expires at the end of 2022.  DPW and Republic are negotiating a two-year renewal of the settlement agreement which would expire at the end of 2022 and would increase the fee Republic pays to transload their waste and recyclables.  

Critics of the settlement agreements assert that the two biggest waste haulers in the country are getting a sweetheart deal.  Waste Management and Republic are functioning under a settlement agreement in which they ceased operating trash transfer stations that were a nuisance to neighborhoods in which they were located.  The fee each company pays is based on the service they receive. Unlike the other private haulers that use Benning Road and Fort Totten, Waste and Republic are not full-service customers that require processing, hauling and disposal. The other private haulers that use Benning Road and Fort Totten require full-service meaning that DPW handles and pays for processing, hauling and disposal of the waste they bring to the transfer stations.  

As I’ve mentioned previously, DPW is planning transformative operations beginning calendar year 2023.  The agency is actively discussing new waste management technology, changes to operations and infrastructure improvements as we plan waste management in the District for 2023 and beyond.

 

Food Waste Composting

Food waste composting through farmers’ markets is a great success. In FY 2020, we achieved a 32 percent increase in compost waste  collecting over last year’s weight.  We collected 485,314 pounds in FY 2019 and 641,582 pounds in FY 2020.

 

Recycling Diversion Rate Improvement

We have seen a steady increase in our recycling diversion rates since FY 2016, accounting for a 9.5% increase. In FY 2019, our diversion rate reached 25% for the first time. We are in the process of developing the FY 2020 diversion rate but suggest it will be down due to COVID.

 

Recycling Contamination

DPW has implemented two new initiatives to reduce recycling contamination.  The first segregates the recyclable material tipped by the settlement agreement haulers, Waste Management and Republic.  During FY20, DPW began segregating recyclable materials brought to DPW by Waste Management and Republic requiring the materials be processed solely at the Benning Road Transfer Station.  Each company is assigned bays where their recyclable material is tipped and loaded. This process ensures that each company is responsible for the materials they bring to the transfer station rather than an equal tonnage of the recyclable material they bring in. Ensuring each company is responsible for their own material ensures responsibility for contaminated recyclables rests with the company, not the District. Each company remains responsible for any materials that are contaminated rather than creating doubt as to the origin of the contamination.

The second initiative addresses recyclable contamination for materials brought in by private haulers and DC Government.  DPW is in the training and development phase of a Recycling Contamination Screening Initiative, with six recycling screeners trained and supporting data systems currently being validated/tested. The screening project is critical to the long-term success of recycling in the District as it will help the city improve the quality of recycling sent for processing.

In collaboration with the Recycling Partnership, the District conducted a small-scale tagging campaign in October 2018 that targeted recycling bins containing bagged recyclables and plastic bags. One week of tagging resulted in a 20 percent reduction of plastic bags and film in the targeted route.

A larger effort was conducted between September and November 2019. DPW tagged recycling carts along 10 residential routes, with approximately 10,000 DPW-serviced households. DPW staff and contractors carried “Oops” tags to place on bins found to contain common non-recyclable items.

This screening initiative will be tied into the planned Spring 2021 residential tagging activities supported by a $308,000 grant from The Recycling Partnership (TRP). This private grant will support the tagging of 15,000-20,000 DPW-serviced households for a period of six weeks, the development and dissemination of a multi-family property recycling toolkit and improve ongoing education and outreach efforts. 

Altogether, the data collected at the curb and at the facility-level from these initiatives will strengthen DPW’s ability to: 1) Identify where recycling contamination is high within the single-family neighborhoods, 2) Improve operational performance, and 3) Conduct more direct and targeted outreach.

 

In FY 2020, we took further steps towards achieving the District’s goal of 80 percent waste diversion: 

  • We launched the Home Composting Program in early FY 2020, empowering 463 District residents through two in-person and eight online workshops to operate their own home composting systems. 
  • We established the East of the River Composting Stewards Program in August 2020, which currently employs two compost stewards. The program has the goal of increasing composting access and participation in underserved communities in Wards 7 and 8.
  • We implemented the Transfer Station Recycling Screening Initiative by training staff on how to identify contaminated recycling, how to reclassify contaminated recycling as refuse, and improving the processes for data collection and billing.

 

In FY 2021, DPW will implement a series of impactful recycling outreach activities across the District, including:

  • Continuing to expand the District’s composting programs by adding three new drop-off locations, hosting 12 composting workshops, and onboarding three additional compost stewards.
  • Starting in the spring, we will launch a series of education and outreach activities to improve recycling within the residential community. This will include:
    • 400 on-site inspections of multi-family buildings by SWEEP staff to establish a baseline for compliance.
    • Launching the first dedicated toolkit of resources to help multi-family property owners, janitorial staff, and tenants to recycle better.
    • Implementing the District’s widest-reaching residential recycling cart tagging campaign yet, targeting 15,000-20,000 DPW-serviced single-family properties over the course of six weeks.
  • In addition to these education and outreach activities, we will continue  the Recycling Screening Initiative at the Ft. Totten Solid Waste Transfer Station. 

 

Initiatives Interrupted by Our Covid-19 Response

New Yard Waste Collection Program 

May 4th was the scheduled kick-off date for our new by-appointment yard waste collection program that will further our ability to achieve Mayor Bowser’s zero waste goal. Unfortunately, at that time, we were in Phase 1 of the pandemic. That morning, Mayor Bowser reported more than 5,000 confirmed cases, more than 250 deaths and more than 400 hospitalizations related to COVID-19. Clearly, the Mayor’s focus was prioritizing the health and safety of District residents. DPW remained committed to providing our essential services – solid waste collections and parking management – that protect public health and safety. 

As of today, we remain in Phase 2 of our pandemic response but anticipate that once Phase 3 goes into effect, we may be able to reset our new yard waste collection program. The new program features collecting up to 20 bags per appointment and asking residents to use paper bags for their yard waste.

  

Glass Recycling Initiative

Last December, I testified that DPW supports the glass recycling requirements included in the proposed Zero Waste Omnibus Amendment Act of 2019. I listed the issues that lead to universal contamination of glass, rendering it valueless. I listed our recommendations to increase the value of recycled glass, including designating a bunker where haulers can bring source separated materials. 

We have identified a bunker site; however, COVID-19 halted next steps. We expect to resume work on this project when the District moves into Phase 3 of the pandemic. This is budgeted and planned for construction in this fiscal year. 

 

Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) Study

DPW began the procurement process to engage a contractor to conduct a feasibility study that could lead to introducing such a program among our residential recycling customers. However, the District’s COVID-19 response required us to put this on a temporary hold. Again, we believe that once Phase 3 occurs, we will be in a better position to pursue this action.

To date, DPW has maintained that while PAYT programs lead to waste reduction and increased diversion, basic programmatic improvements must be made to management of trash and recycling before a complicated, resident-facing pricing system can be put into place. 

DPW- serviced households do not see a line-item charge on their property tax bill or utility bill for trash and recycling services. While District residents would not pay more for trash and recycling services in a PAYT program, the now visible charges for trash and recycling and perception of paying more would likely be viewed negatively by communities. Moreover, waste collection is not treated as a utility in the District, especially its funding structure. 

As such, there are serious concerns that a PAYT program will result in economic disparities in the areas of the District that can least afford it, even under non-pandemic conditions. This is particularly true in Wards 7 and 8 where the median household income is $40,000 or less.

 

Significant Accomplishments in FY 2019 and FY 2020

In FY 2019, DPW initiated several new programs to promote reaching the District’s Zero Waste goal of 80 percent waste diversion. 

  • Through the Home Composting Program, residents can earn a maximum rebate of $75 towards the purchase of a home composting system. To qualify for a rebate, residents must attend a workshop that presents the science of composting, what can be composted at home, how to compost at home, different types of home composting systems, and best management practices. 
  • In FY 20, 8 home traditional composting workshops and 2 worm composting workshops were conducted for a total of 10. The online guide was posted to the Zero Waste webpage: https://zerowaste.dc.gov/homecomposting.

 

Conclusion 

What we have achieved thus far toward realizing Mayor Bowser’s Zero Waste sustainability goal, is the foundation for future accomplishments. I am proud of my team members and their unwavering commitment to taking care of the District’s environment. I am happy to respond to your questions.