Less than a month after District voters decisively rejected a bottle bill initiative proposed by environmentalists, D.C. Council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6) has proposed a mandatory recycling bill that would have a far greater impact on how city residents dispose of their trash.
Supporters and opponents of the bottle initiative gave a warm initial greeting to Winters' proposal, which would require residents to separate newspapers and yard waste from their regular household trash. But other council members and city government officials reacted cautiously after the measure was introduced on Tuesday.
The District's Department of Public Works, which is developing a council-mandated "comprehensive plan" for recycling that is due in July, says it would like to know more about that project before it can assess the possible impact of Winter's bill.
"We'd like to complete the planning process so we know the costs and alternatives of what we might do," said Anne Hoey, administrator of the department's Public Space Maintenance Administration. "The easy days of just burying all the trash are no more. Things are much more complex and we must deliberately design what we'll do."
But Winter, who is chairman of the council's Public Works Committee, says she wants to begin recycling quickly before a trash crisis, similar to the one looming in Montgomery County, confronts the District. Montgomery County recently authorized a $170 million "mass burn" incinerator in Dickerson because its landfill is almost full.
John N. Downs, chairman of the Clean Capital City Committee, the industry-backed group that led the campaign against the beverage bottle deposit initiative, said Winter's bill is the type of "comprehensive solution" to the trash problem that his group favors.
"I haven't seen the bill, but the concept seems sound," Downs said. "We plan to get the committee back together and we may step forward pretty soon."
Jonathan Puth, director of the Bottle Bill Initiative Campaign, also said Winter's bill seems "very desirable" but he said the District needs a deposit law too. "The city has a long way to go in recycling," he said.
Because of the region's growing waste disposal problems, officials of eight area jurisdictions recently formed a recycling committee as part of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
The problem of what to do with the nation's refuse, which attracted national attention last summer when a garbage-laden barge from New York traveled 6,000 miles before finding a place to unload, has emerged as a major political issue. In many jurisdictions, proposals to build high-temperature incinerators have encountered sharp opposition. But recycling plans have also encountered opposition because of their costs and the problems they pose for residents.
Last spring, New Jersey enacted the first statewide mandatory trash recycling law, to which Winter's bill is similar.
Winter, a staunch opponent of the bottle bill initiative, says that unlike that measure, which backers said would have removed about 8 percent of the city's trash, her bill would set a target of recycling 25 percent of the city's "solid waste stream" after two years. That's the same goal enacted in the New Jersey law.
The costs of recycling would be borne by the city government, not by merchants and consumers, as under the defeated bottle bill. Winter said she was not sure what the costs would be, but in the long run she said she was certain they would amount to less than the incinerator and landfill capacity that would be required if recycling is not adopted.
"If no one does anything differently than today, nothing more could be put in the landfill in about the year 2000," Hoey said. "But we are all in the process of doing other things. Fortunately, we have enough time to avoid that problem."
Last year the District disposed of 700,000 tons of trash. About 500,000 tons were placed in a landfill on city-owned property in Lorton, which the District shares with Fairfax County. About 200,000 tons were burned in an incinerator on Benning Road NE.
The District government is preparing plans to convert the incinerator into a more modern facility that can produce energy to generate electricity. Fairfax County plans a similar $200 million incinerator at Lorton, despite strong opposition from nearby residents.
Winter said recycling is needed to reduce the amount of waste put in landfills and incinerators, which, even with new technology, face strong community opposition.
Puth noted that costs at the Lorton landfill are still relatively low: $10 a ton compared with more than $40 a ton at the landfill in Montgomery County.
"Right now it may not be possible to divert solid waste for less than it costs to dispose of it," Puth said. "That won't be true in a few years. But costs are a big question in this issue. Everybody is in favor of recycling until they find out what the bills are going to be."
Under Winter's bill, residents initially would be required to separate newspapers and yard waste, such as leaves, grass and twigs, instead of putting trash of all types in the same cans. Nine months after the bill had become effective, the mayor would designate at least three other materials that would have to be separated at curbside.
The additional materials would be chosen from a list that includes glass bottles, metals, aluminum cans, plastic containers, organic materials, household appliances, wood, other paper products and organic waste.
Only two major local jurisdictions, Alexandria and the suburban trash collection district in Montgomery County, require residents to separate newspapers from other trash.
A few smaller jurisdictions, such as the Town of Chevy Chase, require the separation of yard waste and household trash.