Mayor Vincent C. Gray has now laid out his sprawling and ambitious Sustainable D.C. plan, and there are two things standing between it and reality: Money and politics.
And money may not be the biggest issue. Many of the big-ticket items — like retrofitting D.C. government buildings to be more energy-efficient, planting more than 200,000 new trees, or establishing new wetlands along the Potomac and Anacostia rivers — aren’t so daunting when amortized over the 20-year life of the plan.
Many of the proposals that could have the greatest short-term impact, in fact, are cheap and have been proven to work in other parts of the country — but they are also politically treacherous, and Gray showed little willingness Wednesday to add them to his front-burner agenda.
Take “pay-as-you-throw” garbage collection. That’s a fancy term for a simple concept: The more trash you generate, the more you pay — thus encouraging households to do more recycling and composting. It’s a concept that has been adopted in American cities going back to the 1970s; in some states, more than half of municipalities have adopted it, according to a 2006 EPA survey. And implementation isn’t complicated: In some places, city garbage crews will only pick up trash packed in special bags or marked with special tags sold by the city. Other places rent or sell special designated garbage cans; households that generate more waste can buy or rent more cans.
And yet pay-as-you-throw is listed as a “long term” goal in Gray’s plan. Same goes for a bottle-deposit law — the same sort of law that’s been in place in several states for 30 years or more. A retail ban on foam and non-recyclable plastic containers is listed as a “medium term” goal, when Gray today could follow the example of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and push for such a ban.
Gray said Wednesday he had no immediate plans to pursue any of those things: “Some of these goals are short-term, some are medium, some are longer-term,” he said. “We’ll have to determine at what stage we think we can move forward with some of these initiatives. I don’t know that we’ve set a timetable.”
Chalk it up to politics, because feasibility and cost aren’t major barriers.
Currently in D.C., virtually all single-family residences enjoy free garbage collection from the city, plus gratis bulk-trash pickups and access to the city dump. (There is a small charge to replace missing cans.) Switching to a system where residents would have to buy bags, tags or cans could generate significant pushback. As for a bottle bill, well, let history be your guide: A 1987 voter referendum was rejected by 55 percent of voters after a divisive campaign funded by beverage companies. Since then, there has been no serious effort at a D.C. container deposit.
That said, the Gray administration has already moved forward on a number of ambitious and politically contentious initiatives that are also set out in the sustainability plan. Things like “performance pricing” for parking meters, reducing parking minimums, improving bicycle infrastructure and toughening green-building requirements have encountered pockets of opposition of various sizes. Those are all listed as short-term goals.
So when reading the Gray sustainability plan, understand that whether an initiative is marked short-, medium- or long-term may have less to do with its costs or technical feasibility, and more to do with whether our city leaders have the stomach to put their time, energy and political reputations where their mouths are.