Pizza Boxes are In and Plastic Bags are Out:  DC's Approach to Standardizing Recycling

Washington, DC faced a challenge that many other municipalities face:  what was accepted in recycling sometimes differed depending on whether it was recycled from a single family home, from an apartment or condo complex, an office building, or even a DC government building.  What was recyclable varied according to where you were recycling from – and the hauler that picked up that recycling.  This chaotic reality created confusion and contributed to the District’s low (21 percent) residential diversion rate, a far cry from its 2032 diversion goal of 80 percent.

To address this issue, DC took an interesting step – harmonizing – and mandating uniformity of recyclables across residential, multifamily, businesses (including restaurants) and DC government buildings.  To compile the list of recyclable products, DC government visited eight material recovery facilities (MRFs) within a 45-mile radius of Washington, DC to determine what these facilities recycled – and what they didn’t.  Through this study, the District developed a list of over 200 items that businesses, government, and residents are able to recycle as of January 1, 2018.  The list of items will be reviewed every two years.

The biggest change resulting from the legislation – at least for now - involves pizza boxes and plastic bags.  Pizza boxes can and should be recycled (remaining food removed) but plastic bags are not acceptable.  DC’s study of MRFs found that plastic bags are considered a menace that clog recycling equipment and result in work delays and shutdowns.  Recyclables should be placed loosely into bins or in paper bags.  Meanwhile, any plastic bags should be recycled at specified drop-offs at local supermarkets.  So go ahead and recycle that extra large pizza box—but hold the plastic bag.