Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: What Happens When We Are Done With It?

What happens to the things we don’t want when we dispose of them? I’m referring to our trash, items for recycling and wastewater. While the City of Falls Church efficiently disposes of the things we no longer need, these activities nonetheless have an impact on the environment, and as volunteer members of the City’s Environmental Services Council, we wanted to know more about this. So we arranged a number of tours, and headed out to visit the facilities the City uses for waste disposal.

First we went to Lorton to tour the Waste-to-Energy incinerator, where our trash is taken. The facility is well-run, and they are able to derive some electricity for sale to the grid from the combustion process. Also, incinerators have less harmful impact on the environment compared to landfills, which emit methane gas into the atmosphere and leach toxic chemicals into groundwater.

Still, seeing the large piles of trash in the staging areas was a reminder that we generate an immense amount of trash from so much unnecessary packaging, single use food wrappings and general disposable items that use up substantial resources and energy to produce. It was easy to spot the items that could have been recycled, especially a great number of plastic bags and bottles. Moreover, combustion produces climate-affecting greenhouse gas emissions, and leftover waste ash contains toxic residues that could eventually affect groundwater. After seeing the facility, we highly support the efforts of City staff to encourage residents to generate less trash, and would encourage more effort in this direction.

Next, we traveled to Elkridge, MD to visit a Materials Recovery Facility (“murf” in trade speak). This is one of several facilities where our curbside recycled items are taken. It left a positive impression, and validated our decision to go to single stream recycling (all recycling in one cart) a number of years ago. They use a lot of high technology at these facilities, although most of it has to come from Europe. They also provide a number of high-paying jobs to sort materials for subsequent sale to raw materials markets. Occasionally, our City even gets payments for the items we recycle.

We asked what more we could do to make the process work better. They explained that plastic bags are a problem, because they get stuck in the machinery, causing downtime to make repairs. A better alternative would be for our residents to take plastic bags to specialized collection drop-offs (like the one at Giant Foods), and we are working with City staff to explore ways to get the word out to our residents. Even consolidating plastic bags into one bag would help. Of course, an even better solution is not using disposable bags at all by bringing our own reusable bags when we shop.

Our next tours involved the two wastewater treatment plants our City uses. First was the facility near Crystal City in Arlington. This facility has gone through a lot of upgrades in recent years. The bad news is that the upgrades were expensive (and we share that result), but the good news is that the levels of phosphorous and nitrogen leftover at the end of the process meet the tough EPA standards. We were disappointed to learn that this facility does not derive energy from the nutrients in the wastewater stream, which is the current trend in the industry. Treating wastewater takes a lot of energy.

We also toured the wastewater treatment plant in Alexandria, which does have the technology for deriving energy from the wastewater they treat through a process called anaerobic digestion. They are also starting to install solar panels to offset even more of the energy they currently buy from the grid. We were very impressed by this facility. Although they have capacity to expand the volume of wastewater that can be treated, they did explain that treating increased volumes would increase their costs of operation. Efforts of entities like Falls Church to reduce wastewater volumes therefore will help constrain costs. Low-flow toilets and other water saving devices we can install in our homes do matter. One of their biggest concerns is with pharmaceuticals placed in wastewater, as technology does not yet exist to remove them during processing.

Overall, we reached the following conclusions:

1) Single stream recycling is working

2) Reducing our volumes of trash would have a positive effect on the environment

3) Eliminating (or at least reducing) the quantity of plastic bags placed in curbside recycling would help improve operations at recycling facilities

4) Reducing use of water will save energy and reduce the cost of treating wastewater

We greatly appreciated the skill and knowledge of all of our tour guides, and look forward to working with our City staff to put our knowledge to good use here in Falls Church.


Tim Stevens is a member of Falls Church City’s Environmental Services Council.