DC Passes Styrofoam Ban and must Plan for Zero Waste!

Since January, we've been working to help get two bills passed in DC City Council, both of which passed unanimously on July 14th, 2014!  Several aspects of the bills were made stronger through our efforts.

The most exciting parts of these bills include:

  • banning most uses of Styrofoam in food service in DC
  • requiring disposable food service ware to be compostable or recyclable
  • transportation benefits for those working for larger employers, supporting mass transit passes, bicycling and carpooling
  • requiring the city to come up with a zero waste plan, ensuring that at least 80% of our waste is diverted from incinerators and landfills (we're currently at a miserable 16%)
  • requires better recycling education and labeling of bins
  • starts curbside composting collection
  • mandates electronic waste recycling
  • requires reporting of where our waste and recycling actually goes if collected by private haulers

The two bills that passed are the "Sustainable DC Omnibus Act of 2013" and the "Sustainable Solid Waste Management Amendment Act of 2014."  Our efforts helped improve both bills, but we asked for many improvements that we couldn't get through, and a couple key things got weakened by last-minute amendments pushed by industry.

Bill 20-573: Sustainable DC Omnibus Amendment Act of 2014 passed, including the (limited) Styrofoam ban that begins on page 12, with this amendment adding exemptions for Styrofoam meat trays to please supermarkets like Safeway.

STYROFOAM BAN AND MANDATE FOR DISPOSABLE FOOD SERVICE WARE TO BE COMPOSTABLE/RECYCLABLE:  The new law bans use of Styrofoam for food service businesses by January 1, 2016.  It also requires any single-use food service ware (including utensils and straws) used in food service businesses and government facilities to be replaced with compostable or recyclable products by January 1, 2017.

Approximately 25% of all litter collected in the Anacostia River's Nash Run trap is composed of expanded polystyrene, also known as Styrofoam.  We tried to get this ban extended to store sales of Styrofoam cups, and even the non-expanded polystyrene (like those red or blue disposable "Solo" cups people use at beer parties), but couldn't convince Councilwoman Cheh's staff to go that far.  Toxic styrene leaches out of Styrofoam into alcohol and fatty food (meat/dairy), even from the non-foam kind, like Solo cups.  Safeway (largest supermarket chain in DC) lobbied to weaken the bill, and succeeded in exempting meat trays used to package meat that is butchered in the supermarket (including seafood).  They spread fear that butchers would lose their jobs because Safeway would exploit a loophole in the bill allowing companies to sell products packaged in Styrofoam outside of DC.  They'd rather fire their butchers in DC and package the meat outside of DC to avoid using more responsible packaging.

One other concern that we couldn't get anyone to address is that certain compostable plastics leach more estrogen-mimicking endocrine-disrupting chemicals than most petroleum plastics do.  The compostable polylactic acid (PLA) kind is made from biotech corn ( 90% of U.S. corn is genetically-modified as of 2013, and the stuff going to PLA is probably even moreso).  PLA plastic was found earlier this year to leach estrogen-like chemicals more often than any other plastic tested except for polycarbonate.  91% of samples leached.  See this documented in a March 2014 expose by Mother Jones Magazine.  As the DC Department of the Environment works up their recommendations on alternatives, we hope we can get them to highlight the alternatives that do not leach dangerous chemicals.

Other aspects of the bill include:

TRANSPORTATION BENEFITS: By January 1, 2016, employers with more than 50 employees must provide a transit benefit program to covered employees.  This allows employers to choose between 3 options: (1) a pre-tax election transportation fringe benefits program covering carpooling, transit or bicycling, consistent with and at least equal to maximum federal benefits, (2) an employer-paid transit pass for the system requested by each employee, or reimbursement of vanpool or bicycling costs (amounting to at least the cost of Metro fare), or (3) employer-provided transportation in a bus or vanpool at no cost to the employee.

ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION: The new law sets up an environmental education program in the city's schools.  I was the only one to testify on this part of the bill, who cautioned that most "environmental education" curricula are written by corporations with conflicts of interest in the subject matter, like logging companies writing the "Project Learning Tree" curriculum about forests and bottled water companies writing the "Water Education for Teachers (WET)" curriculum.  I urged them to adopt standards to prevent that (sadly typical) abuse of the environmental education field, but was ignored.  It'll now be up to various government agencies in charge of developing the program (including University of DC) to ensure that the materials are truthful and not parroting corporate public relations.

OTHER STUFF: The law also helps building owners measure energy use, loosens restrictions on beekeeping, and helps increase the amount of trees in DC.

Bill 20-641: Sustainable Solid Waste Management Amendment Act of 2014 passed with this amendment on electronic waste recycling to please the electronics industry.

DC's recycling rate is a pathetic 16%.  It was supposed to be 45% twenty years ago and the city was sued multiple times over it.  That law was ignored by Department of Public Works officials who seem to think that 35% recycling is as high as you can go, and who would rather see you put your recyclables in with the trash and have machines try to sort it all out, then burn most of it.

Thankfully, while we continue to struggle with antiquated views among leading Department of Public Works (DPW) staff, we got city council to force their hand by setting some requirements on where we're going.

SOLID WASTE HIERARCHY: City officials have it backwards and think that incineration (and landfilling the toxic ash) is better than direct landfilling.  We didn't get anything close to the zero waste hierarchy we wanted, but we did manage to keep incineration on the same level as landfilling and to get it defined as disposal (a problem to be avoided) -- rather than "diversion" (part of the solution), as DPW would have it.  The hierarchy is now: (1) reduce/reuse; (2) recycle/compost/trash-to-biofuel; (3) landfill/incinerate.  We think the trash-to-biofuel is a big mistake, though.  More on that below.

MANDATORY SOURCE SEPARATION / FOOD WASTE COMPOSTING: Any notion by DPW to do what Houston, Texas is considering -- a "One Bin for All" approach, putting all trash, recycling and composting in one bin to be sorted out later -- is now illegal.  The new law requires that everyone separate recyclables, trash and -- at some point once a program is established -- compostables, including food scraps.

ZERO WASTE PLAN: The city administration must now develop a zero waste plan designed to move DC toward Mayor Gray's Sustainable DC goal of diverting 80% of our waste from incinerators and landfills.

PAY AS YOU THROW: The law authorizes the city to implement a "Pay as You Throw" system, which rewards those who waste less, but charging less for waste disposal (like any other utility where you pay for how much you use).  Such a system has been successful in boosting recycling in many other cities and towns, but it's politically hard in DC, since waste disposal is paid through taxes, and they'll have to move that payment to a separate fee, which people might see as a new tax of sorts, even though it's just shifting it from one part of a tax bill to a new one.

RECYCLING EDUCATION: Private collection properties (any place where city trucks don't do the trash pickup) and waste haulers must provide for recycling (and eventually, composting) collection services, training of janitors, proper signage and labeling of recycling containers (with visuals or descriptions of what is proper to put in them), and must annually communicate information about source separation requirements to individuals who discard solid waste at the property.

KNOWING WHERE OUR WASTE GOES: Private haulers will now need to register with the city and provide details on where the waste and recycling goes.  The majority of the city's waste is collected by private haulers, and we don't have a way to know where it all goes.

ELECTRONIC WASTE RECYCLING: Starting in 2018, it'll be illegal to dispose of electronic waste in the trash.  Leading up to that, starting in 2017, companies that sell electronic goods must participate in collecting electronic waste for recycling, or supporting the increased number of "convenient" collection locations (at least one in each ward).  They must also provide info on how you can recycle what they sell you.  Unfortunately, the bill doesn't cover cell phones, PDAs, GPS devices, or household gaming devices, among other exemptions.  We tried to get cell phones included, but to no avail.  We also tried to get this program to be one where the companies pay for it, but the city implements it, so that it can keep jobs local and feed materials to local non-profits for repair and reuse.  Instead, the electronics industry fought back and got an awful amendment in last-minute which weakened the bill a lot.  We had previously managed to put in a strong standard that electronic waste is not allowed to go to prison labor for recycling (where it currently goes), or be dumped on the third world, or sent to incinerators or landfills.  All of these standards were stripped out.

TRASH-TO-ETHANOL LOOPHOLE: Supposedly, council staff only intended to allow for veggie oil biodiesel, but used language that supports trash-to-ethanol schemes to count as if it's "diversion" (like recycling and composting), not disposal.  This means that DC will become a magnet for the very expensive and experimental schemes to turn trash into biofuels.  One company, Fiberight, is already trying to get into the market in this region, hoping to build a plant in Elkridge, Maryland.  Another company, called "America First," is trying a similar scheme elsewhere in Maryland.  This technology has been trying to get off the ground since at least 2000, and is only now starting to happen in a few places in North America.  It's unclear whether it'll even work or be affordable, but it's clear that it's not compatible with a solid zero waste plan that seeks the highest and best use of materials.

These plants will come with water and air pollution issues, likely use of biotech enzymes, and (like incinerators) a need to be fed through long-term contracts that commit minimum amounts of waste -- exactly what we should not have, if we want to minimize waste as much as possible.  We succeeded in getting in a clause that prohibits long-term waste contracts (over 10 years), but it'll take more to ensure that this sort of "waste-to-fuel" (WTF?) scheme does not pollute communities, compete with true zero waste solutions, or cost the city too much money.  Department of Public Works staff have already signed up DC to send waste to a trash incinerator even though direct landfilling was the cheaper option (out of their misguided belief that incinerators are wonderful).  Let's not repeat that with another expensive scheme.

THANK YOU for reading this for, and thanks to all who filled out the action alert we did that sent a message to council to get these bills passed!

We were up against high paid corporate lobbyists from the American Chemistry Council, DART Container Corporation, Safeway, the consumer electronics industry, other large corporate interests, and even the mayor's office, who lobbied aggressively against aspects of these bills.

We congratulate Councilmember Mary Cheh for taking the lead on these efforts, and thank all those who helped make this possible.  A big thanks in particular goes out to Sierra Club DC Chapter, DC Environmental Network, Institute for Local Self Reliance, the Alice Ferguson Foundation, Trash Free Maryland, SCRAP-DC, Anacostia Riverkeeper, and Surfrider Foundation.

Here's a copy of the letter many of you helped send:

Dear DC Council Members,

I urge you to please vote YES on the Sustainable DC Omnibus Amendment Act of 2014 (Bill 20-573) and the Sustainable Solid Waste Management Amendment Act of 2014 (Bill 20-641).

While the chemical industry and other interests are pushing hard to spread last-minute confusion, please know that environmental advocates have worked hard with council staff to craft responsible policies to move the District in the direction that many other forward-thinking cities have already pioneered.

I also urge you to correct a critical mistake in the Sustainable Solid Waste Management Amendment Act. That act includes waste incineration as part of a hierarchy in how our waste is handled. Trash incineration turns trash into toxic ash and toxic air pollution. It's the most expensive and most polluting way to manage solid waste -- more polluting than landfills, as the ash still goes to landfills (making them more toxic) after the incinerator pollutes our air. Trash incineration is also the most expensive and most polluting way to make energy -- far dirtier than coal, and 2.5 times as bad for the climate.

Incinerators are disproportionately located in low-income communities and communities of color, making this a serious environmental justice issue. The District's Department of Public Works currently sends much of the city-collected waste to the nation's fourth largest incinerator, in a diverse community of color in Lorton, VA, which is also surrounded by three landfills. They contracted for this out of their pro-incineration beliefs, even though it was cheaper to send our waste directly to landfills.

The District cannot afford to keep subsidizing the most expensive and polluting option if we want to have the economic resources available to conserve our resources properly with a true "zero waste" program, as the Sustainable DC Plan and this legislation calls for. The District was legally bound to achieve a 45% recycling rate by 20 years ago and is currently at 16%, sadly. This legislation calls for the District to follow the lead of cities like San Francisco and Austin to strive for an 80% diversion of waste from landfills and incinerators. This can only be done by following a proper waste hierarchy that rejects incineration as an option.

We urge you to propose an amendment to replace the hierarchy in the Bill 20-0641 with the following:
  1. source reduction and reuse
  2. aerobic composting of source-separated organic wastes
  3. recycling of source-separated recyclables & mechanical extraction of recyclables from trash
  4. anaerobic digestion of residuals remaining from recycling processes
  5. landfilling of digested residuals