Commentary, Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Happy one-year anniversary to our recycling staff’s campaign for composting!

But based on my nonscientific chats with fellow residents, many have yet to make use of the tan plastic counter-top caddies distributed by Arlington County Solid Waste last September. Some consider them a confusing hassle that generates fruit flies and stale odors in what otherwise, I presume, are immaculate Arlington kitchens.

So after witnessing a specialists’ demonstration at the county fair last month, I asked Solid Waste Bureau Chief Erik Grabowsky to address such complaints. A fair number of Arlingtonians, I reminded him, think the small caddy itself is meant to be placed outside for pickup with the large green organic bins. And there is skepticism that the food scraps, after all that labor, actually end up somewhere useful.

Grabowsky, who does his own composting at his South Arlington home, acknowledged that the program “is underutilized,” perhaps 40-45 percent of homes, according to audits. The county “would like to see it reach the same” participation rate as general recycling, 85-90 percent.

When he spotted a neighbor putting her small caddy on the curb empty, as if to get rid of it, Grabowsky tactfully placed a composting brochure on her door. “We just have to do a consistently better job of educating the public.”

On odors, “when things get funkier, I empty the bag and make sure the caddy is cleaned,” he said. “Residuals compound the effects of odor.” But if it gets stinky beyond your comfort level, empty the caddy into the larger green bin. “People have differing tolerance for odors.” To minimize invading insects, Grabowsky advises, clean the caddy with paper towels to reduce moisture.

He also recommends cleaning out refrigerators regularly. “The advantage of using the compost program is that you realize what you were wasting in food.” Instead of buying two avocadoes, for example, perhaps buy one. “With inflation, there is serious money [involved], and this is an opportunity to retool purchases.”

Grabowsky assures me all recycling is recycled and all compost is composted, whether it’s in the Freestate Farms Compost facility in Manassas, the recyclables transfer station in Merrifield (materials from there are trucked to an Elkridge, Md. facility), or the joint Arlington-Alexandria facility on Eisenhower Ave.

His office performs quarterly waste audits, polling the contractor refuse crews in a sampling of 100 homes. You’ll note that the same-14-15 labeled trucks (they cover 10 routes daily) can be used for trash, paper and composting. But composting pickups might be delayed a day if there is excess heat or a truck breakdown.

The campaign began with a multi-page printed guide, cart-hanger reminders, website instructions, and a refrigerator sticker suggesting what scraps are compostable. The bureau is considering a refresher cart-hanger this fall in its “trial and error” quest for zero waste.

“Maybe some people had a rough start when composting started,” Grabowsky said. “But we encourage them to give it another try.”


The debate within Arlington schools over a proposal to cease grading homework is, as the new year starts, on hold.

Last year’s plan to relieve pressure on students by grading only at key “summative” points (say, end-of-unit tests)—prompted some resistance.

A group of Wakefield High School teachers expressed concern that their experience suggests that if they don’t grade the work along the way (formative assessments), students won’t take it seriously.
Sarah Putnam, APS executive director of curriculum and instruction, tells me the policy has been “paused,” revised only slightly for clarifications. Some teachers are moving toward viewing homework as practice, to “try something else on how to motivate students not because grades are important but because learning is important.”

There currently are time constraints on assigned homework that vary by grade level, she said. But the superintendent plans to “take this current school year for growth and expansion and try different paths,” she says. “We won’t make changes until we have critical mass that teachers are ready to move in that direction.”