Gasp! Roanoke Suburb Beats Falls Church as Top Recycler

Falls Church City residents are a proud bunch, accustomed to seeing our little municipality ranking at the top of various indicators. Naturally, we topped Charlottesville as the city with the highest voter turnout in the November election. Our public school system regularly ranks among the top in the country. And among such civic duties as recycling, of course we rank right at the top.

Well, almost. In the latest statistics, Falls Church City ranked #2 in the state’s recycling rate. The top spot went to Vinton.

Vinton? Where’s that? A quick Wikipedia consultation reveals Vinton VA as a suburb of Roanoke with a population of about 8,000 and a total area of 3.4 square miles. Sounds a lot like Falls Church (11,000 population, 2.2. square miles).

Well, Vinton – watch out, because Falls Church City has a new weapon, and it’s called “Single Stream technology.” It means that residents no longer have to sort paper from plastic and aluminum – instead, everything goes in the bin together. And it’s working. While folks in the past were generally pretty good about recycling plastic bottles and aluminum cans, they were less likely to bother with newspaper, magazines, cardboard, and the like.

In December 2008, under Single Stream, the City recycled a record 139 tons. That’s a 28 percent improvement over the previous December (and the latest figures are not reflected in the annual rankings).

Falls Church City’s recycling “guru” is Kathy Allan, who took over from the legendary Annette Mills when she and her activist husband, Dave Eckert, moved to Oregon two years ago. Allan admitted that at first she was reluctant to apply for the City job, but Mills persuaded her. And the progress has been encouraging. “Most people want to do the right thing,” Allan notes, so recycling is really a natural.

Recycling also saves money. The City pays $58 a ton to dump garbage in a landfill (and that doesn’t include the cost of collecting it). But with recycling, the equation is reversed and trash becomes valuable. How valuable? Falls Church received an average of $50 per ton last year. This year will be less, Allan explained, because the value of commodities, like everything else, has dropped.

But still, do the math: A ton of trash recycled avoids paying $58 to dump it, plus receives, let’s say, $42 from the recycler. That’s a savings of $100 per ton by recycling.

Do residents understand just how much of their trash can be dumped in the Green bin now? Allan thinks the recycling bulletins the City puts out have been pretty effective. But just to review, here’s a quick guide. Actually, it’s easier to start with what can NOT be recycled:

• No Styrofoam (meat trays, packing material, etc.)
• No laminated paper products (juice boxes, gravy boxes, etc.)
• No plastic cups, trays, or clamshell containers
• No light bulbs and no glass except bottles and jars
• No ceramics, no pots and pans, no batteries
• No paper plates and napkins

Everything else is pretty much a go! Glass, plastic, and aluminum cans and bottles are a given, as are newspapers and magazines and cardboard. But here are a few surprises:

• Gable-top milk and juice cartons – Yes!
• Books – Yes!
• Rigid plastics (buckets, laundry baskets, coat hangers, flower pots, toys) – Yes!
• Aluminum foil and trays – Yes!
• Aerosol cans – Yes!
• Plastic film – grocery bags, bread bags, bubble wrap, plastic wrap, etc. – Yes! (but put it all inside one bag)

And what about your old, broken Green bin? You can even recycle that (but you might need to personally hand it to the recycling crew so they understand).

Where does all this go? The City pays Bates Trucking to collect it and deliver it to a company called Waste Management Recycle America in Elkridge, Maryland. When the facility opened in June 2007 it was billed as the largest, state-of-the-art single-stream recycling facility in the nation. There, everything you threw together in one bin has to be separated. According to Allan, the scene is one of conveyer belts, star screens, magnets, air blowers, and the like – perhaps something of a cross between Charlie Chaplin amid the machinery in “Modern Times” and Lucy and Ethel sorting chocolates on the speeding conveyer belt.

But back to Falls Church: With the new recycling opportunities, is the Green bin big enough? Why not convert to rolling containers with hinged lids? “I’d love to make the switch,” Allan said. Covered containers hold more, they roll, and they protect from rain and wind.

But these things cost money. Maybe the stimulus package could provide something, Allan suggested. Because even though recycling is Green, it will never make money. Save money, yes; make money, no. Labor costs of pickup far exceed whatever recycling rebate the City receives.

So, the next step in going Green is: Reduction. That means, rather than just recycling one’s consumption, lower the consumption in the first place. How do you do that? Allan pointed to the water bottle she brings to her office. It’s aluminum, not plastic, and thus reusable.

And the City is also focusing on one item you can’t recycle – food waste. Correction: you most certainly can recycle food waste, but not in the Green bin. Instead, compost it. This requires some skill not to make a mess of it, and the City offers free composting classes (next one on Saturday, April 18, from 10-11:30 a.m.). Graduates of the class receive a free composting bin.

February 15, 2009 


5 Responses to “Gasp! Roanoke Suburb Beats Falls Church as Top Recycler”

  1. Andy Rankin on February 15th, 2009 6:16 pm

    One thing I like about single stream recycling is that you don’t have to break down cardboard boxes. With the old system there were specialized trucks that had limited ability to accept large items. With single stream they collect it all in a regular truck so they can take full-sized boxes.

    Does anyone know if it’s acceptable to fill up plastic grocery bags with mixed recyclables? You mention getting rolling recycle bins with lids – for me it would be easy to fill up a series of plastic grocery bags with stuff, tie them off, and put them at the curb (in the bin or next to it).

    Finally, I think it would be great if the City would look into curbside collection of food waste. Other cities do it and it would further reduce the amount of stuff we send to the landfill.

  2. George Southern on February 15th, 2009 6:31 pm

    Andy, thanks for your comments and question. From what I learned from talking to Kathy Allan, it’s good to remember that although everything goes together in one truck, ultimately it still has to be separated. So I don’t think it would be helpful, for example, to fill a plastic bag with paper or glass products. Instead, fill a plastic bag with other plastic bags. Fill a paper bag with other paper products. Put the glass and aluminum loose in the bin. If Kathy has further advice and counsel, maybe she will comment.

  3. Gordon Theisz on February 16th, 2009 9:42 am

    This is an article that should be seen in the News Press. You should submit it as a guest article, George.

  4. Andy Rankin on February 20th, 2009 4:49 pm

    I emailed with Kathy and she confirmed that tightly combining different types of recyclables (i.e. stuffing a plastic bag full of paper and metal and tying it closed) isn’t ideal and makes it harder at the sorting center. She thought that using cardboard boxes (that were to be recycled) as bins for holding mixed recyclables was probably fine.

  5. Sorry, Dave Eckert – I Drove My Car to Your Show : Falls Church Times on March 19th, 2009 1:48 pm

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