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D.C. waste bill supported by environmental groups; Mayor Gray seeks delay

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The D.C. Council’s second vote on a bill to reduce the amount of city garbage dumped in landfills or sent to incinerators is scheduled for July 14, 2014. But D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, a proponent of sustainability, has sought to delay the bill.

Imagine three different colored garbage cans in front of your house instead of two. Imagine throwing your beer bottles and soda cans into the blue bin for recycling and your old food and dead plants into a new green bin for composting.

Increasing access to recycling and separating out compostables helps divert waste and trash from landfills and incinerators. That’s the goal of zero waste.

D.C. generates 900,000 tons of solid waste each year, said a spokesperson for the Mayor.

D.C.’s waste-diversion rate – the amount of trash and other garbage kept out of landfills and incinerators – is only about 23%, according to the website of D.C. Councilmember Mary M. Cheh (Ward 3), chairperson of the Committee of Transportation and Environment who introduced the bill.

The D.C. waste-diversion rate is substantially lower than the diversion rate achieved by cities that have adopted zero waste policies.

If D.C.-area environmental groups have their way, the proposed waste bill will mark a first step towards establishing a zero waste policy in D.C. The bill provides for the creation of a working-group process to develop a zero waste plan and requires that the plan set a minimum goal of diverting 80 percent of waste from landfills and incinerators.

Other cities have adopted zero waste policies.

“Zero waste has been increasingly embraced by cities across the nation (i.e. San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, Seattle and Boulder), and it is the gold standard for solid waste management,” a coalition of local environmental groups said in a July 3, 2014 letter to the D.C. Council urging the Council to approve the bill in its second vote.

But controversy remains.

Mayor Gray asked the Council to reject the proposed legislation in a June 24, 2014 letter, which the Council received before its first vote approving the bill on that same date. The Mayor called the bill premature before the Department of Public Works completes an ongoing waste study, which is expected this fall.

The Mayor’s letter also opposed two other aspects of the bill.

Except for compostable-waste-to-biofuel conversion, the bill would exclude other waste-to-biofuel conversions from those those diversions that count towards the zero waste goal. This would hamper the city’s development of viable energy strategies, the Mayor wrote in his June 24, 2014 letter.

“The proposed hierarchy [of waste removal that will count towards waste diversion] ignores the benefits of energy generated from waste combustion technologies…[and] is contrary to the hierarchy proposed by EPA, which clearly prioritizes energy production above landfilling,” Mayor Gray wrote in his June 24, 2014 letter.

The Major also opposed a pay-as-you go waste-to-landfill fee on the grounds that city residents may perceive it to be a tax.

But in their July 3, 2014 letter, Anacostia Riverkeeper, Anacostia Watershed Society, Center for Biological Diversity, Clean Water Action, DC Environmental Network, DC Statehood Green Party, Earthjustice, Energy Justice Network, Foundation Earth, Global Bees, Global Green USA, Green Cross International, Institute for Local Self Reliance, Potomac Riverkeeper and Sierra Club DC Chapter united around a simple message.

“We want zero waste in DC!” the coalition of environmental groups wrote, urging the Council to approve the bill even as they proposed further revision.

On the issue of waste-to-biofuel conversion, the coalition opposed inclusion of compostable-waste-to-biofuel conversion as an eligible waste-diversion that would count towards any zero waste goal.

“[T]hese [waste into biofuel] processes dis-incentivize waste diversion and can in fact be obstacles to achieving zero waste,” the coalition wrote.

In order for the waste bill to become law, the Council must approve it on a second vote, scheduled for July 14, 2014, Mayor Gray must decide not to veto it, and it must receive approval from the House of Representatives.

The Council’s Committee of Transportation and Environment held hearings on the waste bill and a related omnibus sustainability bill earlier this year. The D.C. Council unanimously voted to approve both the waste bill and the omnibus sustainability bill on June 24, 2014.

The Mayor has made no veto decision, a spokesperson for the Mayor said. Consistent with prior practice, the Mayor will make that decision after the Council’s second vote, when the final provisions of the Sustainable Solid Waste Management Amendment Act of 2014 with all amendments are known.

“This does not seem to rise to the magnitude of a veto,” the spokesperson also said.

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