Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpHerewith some deep thoughts on those plastic bags in which I receive my daily print newspapers. (Yes, digital friends, I’m one of those holdouts.)

Dog walkers in my neighborhood kindly keep a batch of the blue or orange bags tied to a street sign, for other dog-owners’ needs.

The image is unsightly, but it serves a solid purpose, I was recently reminded by specialists in the recycling community. Turns out those bags are not recyclable. So my household has been guilty of green malpractice.

Also not acceptable for Arlington’s recyclables pickup are plastic foam cups and plates and Keurig coffee pods. Oops! All this time I have felt so virtuous for washing off the coffee capsules to be set on the curb every Monday (out of sight, out of mind.)

Virtue is complicated.

Proper handling depends on the arrangements your local government has for sorting and repurposing refuse. “The average Arlington household recycles about 850 lbs. of metals, plastics, glass, paper and cardboard each year, one of the country’s highest rates,” I was told by Phil Bresee, manager of the Environmental Management Office in our Environmental Services Department. We recycle “roughly the same amount of yard trimmings annually.”

Then came the “however.” While people recycle locally, Bresee said, the process “is impacted globally. The ‘recovered materials’ industry has had to navigate through strong macroeconomic headwinds during the past few years, notably due to increased materials quality specifications being imposed by Chinese importers,” our largest consumer, he said via email. “This has helped drive materials prices down and increased costs for recyclables processors and municipal programs.”

Some American jurisdictions are reevaluating collection of recyclables “such as lower-value mixed plastics. We haven’t had to remove or discuss any of our currently accepted materials,” he added. “The recyclables end-market challenges are more dire on the West Coast.” (Due to closer proximity to Asia, West Coasters rely more on exports of recyclables.)

In recent years, Arlington has been “paying to have our recyclables processed, as opposed to earning revenues on materials.” This is not ideal, he said, but “that amount (about $17 per ton) is far less than the $43.16 per ton we pay to dispose of trash. Markets are cyclical, so we expect we’ll weather current conditions and end up producing better-quality recyclables.” He also hopes to invest more in domestic markets and uses for recyclable materials.

The rap against Keurig pods is that they are “made with multiple materials (plastic, foil, paper) and still contain coffee grounds,” the manager said. “Even if a resident were so diligent as to separate the components and recycle just the plastic, chances are these items are so small they would slip through the screens and gaps in materials recovery facilities.”

Bresee assured me the yogurt tubs we responsibly wash and recycle are acceptable (like all food containers, they should be cleansed of leftovers).

My chief takeaway was that “plastic bags pose significant challenges. They shred while traveling through recyclables processing facilities, and have a tendency to wrap around moving parts such as conveyors, gears and screens,” Bresee said. “A typical processing facility needs to shut down for an hour during each eight-hour shift to remove plastic bags from their system. People should take these bags back to retailers, or better yet, try to avoid them altogether by bringing a reusable bag.”


Spotted Saturday at the Columbia Pike Blues Festival: T-shirts reading “Proud to be from, Proud to Live in…..South Arlington.”

They’ve been sold for several years, I was informed by Alcova Heights Civic Association president Lander Allin. He’s loved the South for 35 years, and is aware many from the North seldom visit.

Among other booths were Citizens for Arlington School Equality, expressing alarm at possible inferior amenities at new high school planned for South Arlington’s Career Center. Mostly, however, I heard great music.