I recently investigated Arlington County Board’s claim that “Arlington is dedicated to advancing environmental sustainability”. I sent an FOIA request to Michael Clem, of the county’s Environmental Management Office, asking for the county’s recycling rate. Clem reported a 39.9% recycling rate for 2010. This compares with a statewide recycling rate of 38.6% for 2009. So Arlington’s recycling rate is approximately the same as the rest of the state and a far cry from Falls Church, which recycles 57.6% of its waste. This is troubling not only because it belies Arlington’s claims of sustainability, but because Virginia itself lags behind the rest of the nation in recycling and recycling infrastructure. In fact a Virginia Beach recycling specialist told me in 2008 that outside Virginia Beach there are no comprehensive recycling facilities in the state, and Northern VA trucks its recyclables to Maryland for processing.
Clem further reported that in 2010 the residential recycling rate was 48%, while the commercial rate, including apartment buildings, was 31%. He also stated that “the overall rate is significantly lower than the residential rate because the multi-family and business sector is much larger.” It is estimated that the county’s commercial sector generates 70% of the county’s solid waste, none of which is covered by the county’s residential trash pickup service. It is also estimated that the commercial recycling rate is negatively affected by apartment buildings, which recycle only 10% of their waste. The county itself recycles only 13 percent of the waste from schools and other public buildings, an abysmal rate considering the county’s claim of sustainability.
County Board didn’t dispute these numbers when I quoted them at a recent County Board meeting. They even agreed with me that the recycling rate might improve if they filled the vacant inspector position over at Solid Waste, and they directed the County Manager to do it. That’s a good thing, because Alan Pultyniewsicz of Montgomery County government reported at a May 18 Recycling Rountable sponsored by the Alice Ferguson Foundation in D.C. that even the threat of a citation induces compliance among managers of businesses and apartment buildings. That was Montgomery County’s experience when it decided to get serious about enforcing its recycling code in 2005. Montgomery County deploys 5 educational specialists and 4 investigators to inspect the premises of some 35,000 small businesses and 630 mulit-family dwellings. The specialists do up to 45 site visits per week for a total of 10,000 inspections per year. The number of businesses out of compliance has dropped steadily, and as a result Pultyniewsicz reported 41%, 14%, and 52% as the recycling rates in Montgomery County, MD for commercial, multi-family and residential dwellings, respectively and an over all recycling rate of 43.6 percent.
With a recycling rate of 39.4% in 2009, it seems that Fairfax County doesn’t lag far behind Montgomery County. But Fairfax County recycling expert Kate Vasquez cautioned against comparing the two counties, which are similar in size and demographics. That’s because the Fairfax County commercial recycling ordinance mandates the recycling of only mixed paper and cardboard. Also, because of the Dillon Rule, which requires state approval for most local regulatory schemes, Fairfax County can’t issue citations for violators. Instead it has to get a court to issue the citation, and Fairfax County courts have never cited anyone for failure to recycle.
So Arlington’s big brother, Fairfax County–which is second only to Loudoun County as the wealthiest county in the nation–lacks both a viable recycling ordinance and the means to enforce it. By constrast Arlington County, just put teeth in its commercial recycling ordinance last December, increasing the list of mandatory recycles to include the same items picked up by the county’s residential trash collection service–paper, metal, glass and plastic.
If you’re thinking of bailing out of Arlington County because its claims to sustainability are bogus, think again. While the pasture is greener on the other side of the Potomac in Maryland, it’s a lot worse everywhere else in Virginia. Though Arlington County Board provides a convenient target, and recycling is not at the top of its list of priorities, the responsible parties are located in Richmond, VA.