Potomac River watershed cleanup set for April 11

The 27th annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup is scheduled for 9 a.m. to noon tomorrow at more than 100 sites in the Washington area.

Most of the cleanup sites are in Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia, and Montgomery and Prince George’s County, Md. To find a nearby site where you can volunteer to help with the annual cleanup, go to the Alice Ferguson Foundation’s website. A smaller number of cleanups, also listed on the website, are scheduled for later this month.

Last year, according to the foundation, which organizes the annual cleanup, 14,766 volunteers removed 576,000 pounds of trash from the Potomac River watershed. The watershed covers 14,670 square miles in the District of Columbia, Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.


─Wayne Savage


Film highlights D.C. green roofs

A free showing of three short documentary films on Wednesday will highlight installation of environmentally friendly green roofs in the District of Columbia, efforts to clean up the Anacostia River, and the role of Rock Creek Park as a green oasis in the middle of the city.

A panel discussion will follow with Tommy Wells, director of the D.C. Department of the Environment; George Hawkins, general manager of DC Water; and Peter Ensign, director of DC Greenworks (www.dcgreenworks.org), a nonprofit organization that promotes green roofs and low-impact development.

The three films and their running times are Green Roofs: Riversmart Rooftops (27 min), The Anacostia River: Making Connections (11 min.), and Find Yourself in Rock Creek Park (4 min).

The event, part of the 23rd annual Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Carnegie Institution for Science, 1530 P Street N.W.

For more information on the film festival, go to www.dcenvironmentalfilmfest.org.


−Wayne Savage


9th annual Potomac trash summit set for Nov. 7

The 9th annual Potomac Watershed Trash Summit is scheduled for Nov. 7 at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Keynote speaker for the day-long event will be Jim Dinegar, president and CEO of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

Organized by the Alice Ferguson Foundation, the trash summit is an opportunity for various stakeholders to discuss strategies for reducing litter in the waterways, streets, and public lands within the Potomac River watershed. Participants include representatives of government entities, businesses, and non-profit organizations.

Among the topics scheduled for discussion at the summit are “Taking Action: Tools for Keeping Your Neighborhood Trash Free,” “Marketing to Millennials: A Generational Approach to Trash Reduction,” and “Trash Free Communities: How Public-Private Partnerships Help Transform Neighborhoods and Businesses.”

An optional field trip, scheduled from 2:15 to 5:30 p.m., is a bus tour of Wards 5 and 7 in the District of Columbia, where community leaders and business owners will describe their grassroots effort to inspire behavior change that reduces litter.

Tickets for the summit, including lunch, are $50 if purchased by Friday and then $75 until registration closes on Nov. 5. The optional field trip is an additional $15.

For further information and to register for the trash summit, go to www.trashsummit.org. Questions about the summit can be directed to Clara Elias at 301-292-5665 or at [email protected].







Yes, D.C. has a state fair!

The D.C. State Fair returns this Saturday, Sept. 20, with many of the same popular contests from prior years and, for the first time, a biergarten.

Now in its fifth year, the state fair will run from 12 noon to 7 p.m. at the Old City Farm & Guild, 925 Rhode Island Avenue N.W.,  just two blocks west of the Shaw-Howard University Metro Station. The fair will be part of Homegrown DC, a hyper-local farmers’ market and festival celebrating healthy food grown right in our nation’s capital.

The biergarten, hosted by Union Market, will be from 4 to 7 p.m.

Exhibitors for the following contests must register their entries by midnight Wednesday on the state fair website:

■ Pickled foods (cucumbers, other vegetables, and fruit)

■ Jams and jellies

■ Fermented vegetables (sauerkraut, kimchi, etc.)

■ Pies

■ Ice cream

■ Photography

■ Kids’ poetry

■ Sewing

■ Knit and Crochet

The fair also will feature these contests, with no registration deadline:

■ Heaviest vegetable

■ Heaviest fruit

■ Longest vegetable

■ Funkiest-looking vegetable

■ Honey

■ Kids’ art

■ Mason jar flower arrangement

■ Hats for newborns

For more information and to register entries, go to the D.C. State Fair website at www.dcstatefair.org.


The Stager: Coll’s new novel displays understanding of little-known industry

The Stager

By Susan Coll

Sarah Crichton Books  288 pp.



Review by Trish Kim


When I saw the title of Susan Coll’s new novel, The Stager, I thought, “Well, this is required reading!” And when I saw that the story is set in Bethesda, Md., my own back yard, I could see I had no choice, since I am a stager in the Washington area.

I was a little skeptical, since very few people, famous authors included, know anything about our industry and even less about Accredited Staging Professional Masters, the designation I hold. But I relaxed when I saw in Coll’s acknowledgments that one source for her facts was Staging to Sell by Barb Schwarz, my personal friend and mentor who founded the International Association of Home Staging Professionals. So I felt right at home, no pun intended, and began to read with confidence.

I am immediately struck with Coll’s writing style and love it. It reminds me of the late English author Stella Gibbons, with a modern twist. The humor is rampant, droll, and both dark and light. The quirky characters are well-constructed and their qualities and inner thoughts well-described in their own words, and one really feels connected to each of them.

The Stager’s story line is a familiar one in my profession. A seller is moving for professional reasons, and the Realtor brings in Eve, a professional stager, to make the house more “buyer friendly” and give it the “wow factor” lacking in most homes. The goal of staging is to sell homes faster and for more money.

Since this an occupied home, Eve touches every room and is necessarily up-close-and-personal with the family, so the relationship is very intimate for a few days. In my personal staging business, the project is done in one or, at the most, two days, so it was interesting to see Eve in and out over a longer period of time. In this story, that extended time period makes for some interesting interaction with the household.

Eve arrives late in speaking for herself, and I was beginning to wonder when she would actually show up and have her say. I liked her best of all the adult characters and understood her well from an industry perspective. Her position, professionally speaking, is challenging, to say the least. A previous and very intimate relationship with Bella, the owner of the house to be staged, ends in very tragic and contentious circumstances. Eve must avoid the household’s adults, who would be less than welcoming if they were aware of her presence. This is tricky, of course, but made less so by the fact that the owners are away traveling during part of the project.

I’m happy to say I’ve never had to deal with Eve’s circumstances. However, the description of her approach to staging is accurate, down to the depersonalization of the property and the ferreting out of offending odors. A disclaimer: Depersonalization doesn’t include stealing items to achieve the “look.”

The most charming and compelling character is Elsa, the only child in the novel. Her thoughts and actions are intelligent, funny, and spontaneous, responding to the adults around her with a display of loyalty and maturity lacking in the grown-ups.

The novel’s non-human character, a pet rabbit named Dominique, was a close second to Elsa in my affections. Dominique disappears as the staging project commences, causing a lot of anxiety for all the characters, but especially Elsa. His absence and the search for him is a continuing theme throughout. The rabbit stands out, as does Elsa, as seemingly saner than the rest of the family. Witness his very interesting and convoluted “conversation” with Lars, the drug-infused husband, father, owner.

Coll is now on my short list of favorite authors. I must go back and read the previous novels for which she is already well-known and will continue to follow her career and work. It’s a big plus for me that she’s a local writer and that we share a knowledge of the staging industry. But for anyone else in the reading world, just read The Stager for fun.


Trish Kim is president of the International Association of Home Staging Professionals and CEO of Staged Interior in Chantilly, Va.


Copyright © 2014  Mid-Atlantic Litter Cleanup Service



Habitat loss imperils monarch butterflies’ migration

By Wayne Savage


The leading edge of monarch butterflies’ annual spring migration is passing through the Washington area after their winter colonies in Mexico shrank to the smallest size ever recorded.

Observers in the Washington area reported initial sightings of the iconic insects on May 2 at the Winkler Botanical Preserve in Alexandria, Va.; on May 3 in a backyard garden in Fairfax, Va.; and on May 5 at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Md. The sightings are recorded at The Journey North, a website where citizen-scientists report observations of migratory birds and other species.


3,000-mile migration


During spring and summer, monarchs breed throughout the United States and southern Canada, although the prime breeding areas are in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, and the upper Midwest.

In the fall, monarchs from east of the Rocky Mountains migrate to Mexico, fl­ying up to 3,000 miles to remote overwintering sites among fir trees in the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains of central Mexico. The Mexican government has created a “biosphere reserve,” now encompassing 217 square miles, to protect the monarch colonies.

A monarch butterfly (Photo from Mexicotoday.org)

Monarchs are known to breed year-round in South Florida, and some can survive winters along the northern Gulf Coast if temperatures remain mild. But many monarchs arriving on the Florida panhandle attempt to reach Mexico by flying 700 miles non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico, according to Richard G. RuBino, professor emeritus of regional planning at Florida State University.

“[T]hey are often seen clinging to the decks of fishing boats, pleasure boats, and on oil platforms many miles away from shore,” Rubino said in a report published by Monarch Watch, a nonprofit educational program at the University of Kansas.

In the spring, the monarchs that overwinter in Mexico fly north to lay eggs on milkweeds and a few other plants in the dogbane family. Milkweed leaves are the only food source for monarch larvae (caterpillars) and thus essential to the butterfly’s successful breeding.

The total area covered by monarch colonies last winter in Mexico was just 0.67 hectares (1.66 acres), according to the World Wildlife Fund-Mexico. It was the third straight winter of colony shrinkage for the monarch and the smallest area covered by the overwintering colonies since they were first discovered in 1975. The largest colonies occurred in 1996-97, when 20.97 hectares (51.82 acres) were covered.

“The monarch butterfly as a species is not endangered,” said Omar Vidal, director general of WWF-Mexico, in an email exchange with Nationalgeographic.com on Jan. 29. “What is endangered is its migratory phenomenon from Canada to Mexico and back.”


Loss of habitat


Multiple factors on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border have converged in recent years to decimate the monarch population.

Illegal logging deforested or degraded 2,057 hectares (5,081 acres) of habitat in the Mexican monarch reserve from 2001 and 2012, Vidal reported. Enforcement efforts and the creation of alternative income sources for local residents have halted large-scale illegal logging, but small-scale logging remains a concern.

In the United States, milkweed has suffered from the widespread use of the herbicide glyphosate (e.g., Monsanto’s Roundup brand), especially after the introduction in 1996 of genetically engineered crops that are resistant to it. Application of glyphosate to control weeds replaced mechanical tillage, a traditional practice that allowed some milkweed plants to survive, according to Orley R. “Chip” Taylor, director of Monarch Watch.

Milkweed took another hit in 2007 when the federal Renewable Fuel Standard required blending biofuels, such as ethanol distilled from corn, into petroleum-based fuels. That led to a surge of corn and soybean production, displacing millions of acres of milkweed habitat. Between 2006 and 2013, the number of acres planted in corn and soybeans grew from 153 million to 174.4 million, a 14-percent increase due largely to the ethanol mandate, Taylor wrote in a January blog post on the Monarch Watch website.

Native prairies, rangelands, wetlands, and 11.2 million acres of land previously in the federal Conservation Reserve Program have been plowed under to produce more corn and soybeans, according to Taylor.

The ethanol mandate also spurred farmers to plant the edges of fields that had provided a safe niche for milkweed.

“It took us 40 years to end edge tillage in this country, and overnight ethanol brought it back with a vengeance,” said James Conca, a columnist for Forbes.com, in an April 20 commentary.

Taylor estimates that another 17 million acres of land east of the Rockies – much of which contained milkweed at one time – has been lost to development due to human population growth since 1996.

The monarch population will rebound, in Taylor’s view, only if weather conditions are favorable and there is enough milkweed. He grimly predicts that the large numbers of monarchs of the 1990s will never return.

Fairfax resident aids

monarchs’ ‘cycle of life’


Numerous organizations are working to encourage milkweed cultivation and habitat conservation, an effort that includes backyard gardeners such as Marbea Tammaro of  Fairfax, Va. She grows milkweed at her home and reported a May 3 monarch sighting to The Journey North website.

Tammaro, an occupational therapist with Arlington County public schools, said she started growing milkweed two years ago after taking a class through the Monarch Teacher Network, an organization that helps teachers incorporate information about monarchs into their curricula.

After sighting the monarch flitting around her milkweed plants, which are in a warm location facing south, Tammaro returned a short time later and discovered 60 pinhead-size eggs laid on the leaves.

It’s unlikely that the monarchs arriving in Washington came all the way from Mexico. Instead, they probably are first-generation descendants from individuals that overwintered in Florida or Mexico.

“I thought that she looked very young,” Tammaro said of the monarch at her house on May 3. “Not faded, not beat up … no visible tears or breaks.”

Tammaro’s concern for monarchs includes rearing them indoors, safe from the birds that prey on caterpillars.

“When I find eggs,” Tammaro said, “I protect them outside or take them into my house and raise them where they get what they need but are protected from predators.”

After maturing for three to five days, the monarch eggs hatch caterpillars that molt several times before forming chrysalides that turn into adult butterflies. Throughout the entire process, which takes about four weeks, Tammaro provides milkweed from her garden, placing the greenery in containers of water as one would a bouquet of flowers. To contain the older caterpillars and adults, Tammaro constructs rearing cages made of steel tomato cages turned upside down and covered with a thin mesh material.

The ravenous monarch caterpillars eat the milkweed leaves down to the stalk.

“When you’re around them and it’s quiet, you can hear them munching,” Tammaro said. “It’s really funny.”

After emerging from their chrysalides, the adult monarchs dry their wings for a couple of hours by periodically flapping them, then are ready for release into Tammaro’s garden, where nectaring plants, or fruit juice or orange slices, await.

“I try to let them go in the early part of the day in a sunny day so they can find food and get to a safe place … rather than when it’s dark and raining,” Tammaro said.

Tammaro admits that her children think her interest in monarchs is a bit nerdy, but she encourages others to cultivate milkweed, which grows easily, and said monarch husbandry is a way to be part of the cycle of life.


Update (Feb. 27, 2016): World Wildlife Fund reports monarch populations in Mexico are up significantly this winter. See the Reuters news story here:  http://www.reuters.com/article/us-butterflies-monarchs-idUSKCN0VZ2YA


Wayne Savage is the owner of Mid-Atlantic Litter Cleanup Service, a Washington, D.C.-based litter-removal service.  He co-owns a small tract of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program in central Missouri.


For further information:

Monarch Butterfly Fund:  www.monarchbutterflyfund.org

The Monarch Butterfly in North America (USDA):


Monarch Joint Venture: http://www.monarchjointventure.org




New tool library opens in D.C.

While biking along D.C.’s Northwest Branch Trail a few days ago, Litterblog stumbled upon a new tool library  just a few steps from the Brookland Metro station.

With a name like Banished?ARTillery, you know it must have a quirky provenance, and indeed that is the case. The tool library is a nonprofit offshoot of Banished?Productions (http://banishedproductions.org/), which describes itself as “an avant-pop performance company.” Performance artists need sets, and building sets requires tools. Now those tools, and others donated to the library, are available for lending.

The tool library, the only one in D.C., operates as a cooperative. Members pay a $100 annual fee and agree to donate nine hours of volunteer labor to help run the library. Alternatively, a “Struggling Artist Membership” is available for $50 per year ($4.16 per month) and 18 volunteer hours.

Members may borrow up to seven tools per week but with a limit of three power tools at any one time.

Niell DuVal, Banished?Productions’ technical director, showed Litterblog around the library and explained that it was inspired by similar undertakings in Portland, Ore., and Seattle. (Closer to home, Takoma Park, Md., had a tool library for a number of years, but it no longer exists.)

The selection of tools, while modest, is respectable, and Litterblog was enchanted by the prospect of borrowing the library’s shop vacuum and its reciprocating saw, a necessity for a planned rain-barrel modification.

The tool library is open from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays. It is located in Studio 27 of the Arts Walk at the new Monroe Street Market, 716 Monroe Street N.E., next to the Catholic University exit of the Brookland Metro station.

For more information, go to http://banishedartillery.tumblr.com/tools.


─Wayne Savage













Lose the lawn: D.C. offers free plants to replace turf or pavement

To help limit polluting stormwater runoff, D.C.’s Department of the Environment is offering city residents free edible plants and pollinator plants to replace their turf and pavement.

DOE also has scheduled two free workshops on landscape-maintenance techniques ─ including the use of rain barrels, permeable pavement, and rain gardens ─ to capture stormwater before it enters streams and rivers.

Registration deadline for both the plant give-away and landscape-maintenance workshops is Wednesday, March 26.

For each 100 square feet of turf or pavement that residents agree to replace, they will be given topsoil and 15 shrubs or perennials or one fruit or nut tree.

“The removal of turf and pavement allows for the revegetation with trees and plants, which capture rainwater and allow it to soak into ground,” DOE states. “Plants also grow roots through the soils, making the soil spongy so that in time, even more water can infiltrate.”

Plants available are: raspberry, blackberry, dewberry, blueberry, strawberry, lemon balm, oregano, sage, rosemary, thyme, lavender, mint, fennel, asparagus, mallow, coneflower, and bachelors buttons.

Trees available are: shadberry, apple, fig, persimmon, peach, and pecan.

Residents who register for the plant-giveaway must submit a photo of the turf or pavement they intend to remove, followed by a second photo showing its subsequent removal in preparation for planting. The second photo is due on April 26, one week before the plant pickup, which is scheduled for 10 a.m. to noon on May 3 at the Anacostia Park skate pavilion, 1900 Anacostia Drive S.E. Free topsoil also will be available for participants to pick up from three area retailers between April 11 and May 11.

The plant-giveaway is funded by a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Water Act.

DOE’s one-hour landscape-maintenance workshops for city residents will be at 10:30 a.m. on April 19 at the Takoma Park Recreation Center, 300 Van Buren St. N.W., and at 10:30 a.m. on May 3 at the Anacostia Park skate pavilion.

To register for either the plant-giveaway or the landscape-maintenance workshops, go to https://octo.quickbase.com/db/biraci36s.

Further information is available from Leah Lemoine at [email protected] or (202) 654-6131.


─ Wayne Savage


For further reading:

Turf or pavement removal program (D.C. DOE flier) (Note: Pickup of plants is no longer available at the Takoma Park Recreation Center.)

Landscape-maintenance workshops (D.C. DOE flier)



D.C. team places 7th in Solar Decathlon

The completed Harvest House on the campus of Catholic University before its disassembly for transport to Irvine, Calif., site of the 2013 Solar Decathlon. (Photos by Wayne Savage)

By Wayne Savage 


A solar-powered house designed by students from three D.C. universities placed 7th among 19 entries today in the 2013 Solar Decathlon competition.

The biennial contest, held this year in Irvine, Calif., challenges collegiate teams from around the world to design and build solar-powered homes that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive to home-buyers. First place in the contest, which is organized by the U.S. Department of Energy, went to Team Austria from the Vienna University of Technology.

Collaborating students from American University, Catholic University, and George Washington University formed Team Capitol DC for the Solar Decathlon competition. They called their entry “Harvest House.”

After the Solar Decathlon’s final public tours tomorrow, Harvest House will be donated to Wounded Warrior Homes, a San Diego-based non-profit organization that provides transitional housing for military veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. When rebuilt on a permanent site in Vista, Calif., Harvest House will become the home of an Iraq-war veteran, identified only as Travis, who has PTSD, and his service dog, Gibbs.

Litter blog toured Harvest House at its initial construction site on the campus of Catholic University before it was disassembled for transport to California. Our guide was Sarah Buffaloe, a Colorado native who earned a degree in architecture from Syracuse University before starting work on a master’s degree in sustainable design at Catholic University.


Recycled-steel frame


Harvest House’s frame consists of two steel modules specifically designed so they can be transported on flatbed trucks. The modules also were engineered to withstand Southern California earthquakes.

Some 89 percent of the frame is recycled steel, and many other materials for the house were reclaimed from deconstructed buildings. A 100-year-old Methodist church in Ohio was a primary source of wood for the siding, floors, and exterior deck. Additional wood came from a deconstructed barn in Poolsville, Md., and soft tiles on part of the deck were made of recycled rubber from tires.

Inside the house, materials were selected to minimize the occupants’ exposure to toxins. Water pipes are polypropylene, not the more common polyvinyl chloride, which may leach harmful chemicals.  Bathroom tiles are porcelain that does not emit volatile organic compounds. Bedroom cabinets were made in-house by Team Capitol DC using bamboo certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and “which meets the most stringent California requirements for emissions,” said Buffaloe.

Harvest House is solar-powered, of course, with 32 245-watt photovoltaic panels generating 6.8 kilowatts of usable electricity. The house is designed to be “net-zero” –  producing all the energy it needs without pulling from the electrical grid – and eventually net positive.

During the week-long Solar Decathlon competition, Harvest House produced 91.9 kilowatt-hours of positive net electrical energy. When occupied and electrical appliances are in use, its solar panels are expected to generate 10 percent more electricity than the house needs, according to Buffaloe.


                                                Energy-efficient features


Multiple design features of the Harvest House conserve the electricity produced by its solar panels.

Behind the wooden exterior, which acts a rain screen, is a liquid-applied air-and-water barrier that “doesn’t allow air penetration at all,” Buffaloe said. “And since it’s a liquid-applied, it’s sealed at all of the corners, so we get no air infiltration at the weak points of the envelope. Then we have a SIP panel behind that – a structural insulated panel.”

All light fixtures use LED bulbs, and the house has a high-efficiency air-to-air heat pump for heating and cooling.

Air is supplied to floor vents that produce a helical flow. “[I]t works with convection to circulate air throughout the space directly where the occupant will feel it, so it’s a more efficient system,” said Buffaloe.

The entire house and its ventilation ducts were pressure-tested for leaks, and an infrared camera was used to reveal heat infiltration. Test results guided the students in tightening the building envelope and ducts.

Double-pane windows, with argon gas between the panes, are strategically placed for passive ventilation so that warmer air from the sun-exposed south is drawn by convection to the cooler north.

An innovative screen on the southern side of the Harvest House contains “memory wire” that closes the screen to shade the house as it heats up, then opens the screen as it cools to let in sunlight. The memory wire requires no electricity for its operation, and the screen is on a track so it can be opened for ventilation.


                                                   Moving with the sun


Placement of the screen on the south side of Harvest House is just one example of how the building’s design accounts for the position of the sun.

“The idea is that you occupy the house throughout the day to move with the sun,” said Buffaloe.

To the east, directly off the bedroom, is the “morning deck.” An occupant can enjoy coffee on the eastern deck while basking in the warm morning sun, then move back inside, where filtered midday sunlight enters from the south. In the evening, as the sun sets in the west, dinner can be taken at the “harvest table,” the main feature of an expansive deck on the north side of the house. In the center of the harvest table are live greens and herbs on either side of a narrow rivulet of running water.

A "popup garden" fashioned from milk crates on the deck of Harvest House allows occupants to grow some of their own food.

Together, the two decks double the useable living space of Harvest House and contain a garden of edible plants grown in milk crates.  Each crate is filled with a mix of topsoil and coir, a coarse fiber from the outer husks of coconuts.

“The reason we’re using the milk crates is because they’re very flexible,” said Buffaloe. “We call them a ‘popup garden.’ So we can adjust the height and the depth of the garden as needed, and our occupant can do that as well.”

Irrigation for the garden – an important consideration in Southern California, where annual rainfall is only two inches a year – comes from a cistern that collects rainwater from the roof and from graywater collected from the sinks and shower.

Harvest House is one of nearly 100 test projects for the latest version of LEED certification, which will be launched next month.

“We chose to do [the new version of LEED] to really push ourselves, to meet the highest standard out there,” Buffaloe said. “We used it as a decision-making framework more than anything. … [A]ny time we had a question, we turned to the rating system to tell us what a good decision would be.”

Litter blog thinks a lot of good decisions went into Harvest House and congratulates Team Capitol DC on a strong showing in the 2013 Solar Decathlon!


Wayne Savage is the owner of Mid-Atlantic Litter Cleanup Service, a Washington, D.C.-based litter-removal company.

Potomac Watershed Trash Summit set for Oct. 18

Field trips showcasing efforts to reduce litter in the Washington area will highlight the 8th annual Potomac Watershed Trash Summit on Oct. 18 in Washington.

The trash summit, to be held at the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law, also will feature an appearance by Jim Toomey, creator of the nationally syndicated cartoon “Sherman’s Lagoon.” Toomey is an advocate for taking steps to end marine litter.

The annual trash summit is organized by the Alice Ferguson Foundation and brings together citizens, public officials and youth leaders to collaborate on ways of eliminating litter from the Potomac River watershed.

Field trips scheduled as part of the summit are:

■ Communities in Action. A tour of on-the-ground efforts in Prince George’s County, Md., to implement the foundation’s Regional Litter Prevention Campaign, which relies on public education and awareness to change littering behavior. The tour will include a “trash free community” and litter hotspots.

■ Trapping and Tracking Trash. With a primary focus on the Anacostia River, the field trip will explore efforts to capture trash in the water and monitor what is left behind.

■ Composting: Big and Small. The tour will feature the University of Maryland’s multi-faceted composting program and the city of College Park’s yard waste composting program.

The field trips are scheduled for 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., with participants asked to bring their own trash-free lunch. Early registration is encouraged, as space on the field trips is limited. Afternoon sessions will be held from 1 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. at the law school.

A complete agenda of the summit is available at http://fergusonfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Summit-2013-Brief-Agenda-FINAL-8-6-13.pdf.

The registration fee for the summit is $25. To register, go to the summit web site at http://fergusonfoundation.org/trash-free-potomac-watershed-initiative/potomac-watershed-trash-summit/.





Beyond recycling: the ‘zero waste’ movement

By Wayne Savage


Greg Smith is on a mission to make Prince George’s County, Md., a zero-waste jurisdiction.

As a co-founder of Community Research, a public-interest research and advocacy group based in College Park, it’s not surprising that Smith has tackled an environmental issue. His group helped set up Zero Waste Prince George’s, which describes itself as 60 or so activists interested in “resource recovery from waste.” Efforts are afoot to build a statewide campaign.

But zero waste? Is it even possible?

Those who advocate zero waste don’t necessarily expect that every last scrap of trash will be recycled or composted. As Smith explains it, his group seeks to reduce the amount of waste that will be burned or buried by at least 90 percent.

Smith laid out the case for zero waste recently when he spoke in microsuburb Edmonston, Md., at the nonprofit Community Forklift, a cavernous warehouse filled with salvaged and surplus building materials offered for sale.

Advocates for zero waste define the concept expansively to include not only waste disposal (preferred term: resource recovery) but also a transformative approach to production and consumption of material goods.

The Zero Waste International Alliance, which grew out of a 2002 conference in Geneva, calls zero waste a visionary goal that “guide[s] people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.” In a zero-waste world, according to this definition, there will be a systematic effort to “eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.”

Based on an analysis conducted by Community Research, Smith said he believes it’s possible for Prince George’s County to recycle or compost at least 90 percent of its waste stream. And at current commodity prices for compost and recycled paper, metals, and plastics, he figures the county stands to lose millions of dollars annually by continuing to landfill its trash. That’s the core economic argument he takes to county officials when promoting zero waste.

“If what we’re proposing to them doesn’t work fiscally, it won’t work period,” he said.

Recycling and composting also are less polluting and create more local jobs than landfilling or incinerating trash, Smith said.

Smith points to the example of San Francisco, where Mayor Edwin M. Lee announced in October that his city had achieved a waste-diversion rate of 80 percent. San Francisco residents use three color-coded waste containers for curbside pickup: blue for recyclables, green for compostable waste, and black for waste sent to a landfill.


Moving toward zero


As it turns out, Prince George’s County and a few other jurisdictions in the Washington area have embraced the concept of zero waste ─ though they might define it in different ways ─ or have moved in that direction with pilot programs to collect food waste separately for composting.

Prince George’s County’s six-year Capital Improvement Program earmarks $100,000 to develop a zero-waste strategic plan during the current fiscal year, which began July 1. The money was included in funding for a new $35 million solid waste transfer station at the current site of the county’s yard waste composting facility.

Legislation adopted unanimously by the County Council in November established a food composting pilot program and set a recycling goal of 60 percent by 2020.

“We can build on these reforms to set Prince George’s County on a path to zero-waste, new green jobs in the resource recovery industry, and a cleaner healthier environment,” said Council Member Mary Lehman, a co-sponsor of the legislation, in a prepared statement.

In the District of Columbia, Mayor Vincent Gray’s wide-ranging sustainability plan calls for the city to “send zero solid waste to landfills per year and reduce total waste generation by 15%” by 2032. The plan also envisions reusing 20 percent of all construction and demolition debris, and diverting 80 percent of the city’s total waste through recycling, composting, and conversion.

To achieve those goals within the next two decades, Gray’s plan includes ambitious features:

■ a “pay-as-you-throw” pricing structure for solid-waste collection that charges residents based on the amount of trash they generate.

■ a ban on Styrofoam and non-recyclable plastic containers from food and retail outlets.

■ a container deposit law for all glass and plastic bottles.

■ a requirement that 75 percent of construction and demolition waste be reused or recycled.

■ a three-track waste-collection system, like the one used in San Francisco, that provides each household separate containers for general waste, recyclables, and compostable organic waste.

■ an organics transfer station to accept organic waste collected from or deposited by city residents. (In December, Gray announced $600,000 in funding to design and build up to four compost sites at urban farms or community gardens in the city.)

Curbside pickup of food waste for composting already is a reality, although on a limited basis, in two Washington suburbs. University Park provides the service for 150 households, and Takoma Park launched a six-month pilot program serving 300 households earlier this year


A burning question


The huge unknown lurking within the zero-waste movement is what role, if any, incineration will play. Burning solid waste is anathema to many environmentalists. Proposals to build electricity-generating “waste-to-energy” incinerators typically encounter robust opposition, including accusations that they release toxic byproducts and are sited in politically disenfranchised poor and minority communities.

Despite taking tentative steps toward some version of “zero waste,” neither Prince George’s County nor the District of Columbia has precluded incineration as an option.  D.C.’s sustainability plan, for example, is focused on keeping waste out of landfills, ignoring the rigorous no-burn/no-bury definition of zero waste promoted by the Zero Waste International Alliance. The D.C. plan calls for a study of different waste-management options, including “waste-to-energy conversion,” though that presumably could include an innovative technology, such as anaerobic digestion, rather than incineration.

Smith fears that Prince George’s County could wind up sending waste to a planned incinerator in Frederick County, Md., or partnering with the District of Columbia to build an incinerator in the nation’s capital.

“We would rather Prince George’s County become the site of a regional composting facility than a partner in a regional incinerator,” he said.

According to Smith, 30 percent of the solid waste burned in an incinerator, by weight, is “left behind as ash laden with toxic materials.” (Montgomery County, Md., has reported that its incinerator reduces the volume of waste to approximately 10 percent of its initial size.)

Montgomery County Resource Recovery Facility (Photo from Montgomery County Division of Solid Waste Services website)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes on its website that although incineration reduces the need for landfill capacity, ash and other residue may contain toxic materials and “must be tested regularly to assure that the wastes are safely disposed [of] to prevent toxic substances from migrating into ground-water supplies.”

A 2011 report by the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enforcement of anti-pollution laws, also drew attention to the smokestack emissions of incinerators. The report concluded that existing waste-to-energy incinerators in Maryland “typically emit more pollutants [such as mercury, lead and nitrogen oxides] per hour of energy produced than Maryland’s largest coal-fired power plants.”

Incinerators also release greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, at twice the rate of coal-fired power plants, according to the Environmental Integrity Project. The significance of that finding is controversial, with proponents of waste-to-energy incinerators arguing that much of the carbon dioxide comes from burning plant-based materials such as paper, which derived their carbon from the atmosphere. In this view, the carbon is simply being returned to its original location, so there is no net increase in the atmosphere.

Apart from environmental considerations, Smith cites the cost of waste incinerators, which he said can exceed $1 billion for a 1,500-ton-per-day facility.

“Ton for ton, incineration is the most expensive option,” he said.

The feasibility of waste-to-energy incinerators depends on securing a steady supply of combustible trash, prompting concerns that incineration acts as a disincentive to expanded recycling and composting. That dynamic seems to be at play in Lorton, Va., where the Fairfax County incinerator burns trash from the District of Columbia. Fairfax County sought D.C’s trash business in 2010 to help feed the incinerator and keep it profitable after the recession caused a drop-off in trash from other sources.

“[W]e want to operate at as close to capacity as possible,” said Joyce Doughty, director of Fairfax County’s solid-waste division, in a 2010 interview with the Washington Post.


                                                       D.C. retains incinerator option  


The waste-management study called for in the District of Columbia’s sustainability plan will likely determine whether D.C. defines “zero waste” to include incineration ─ an outcome that would undercut the concept of zero waste promoted by Smith and other environmentalists.

When Gray, the District’s mayor, set aside $300,000 in December to fund the waste-management study, the D.C. Department of the Environment said the study would focus on “the costs and benefits of establishing a waste-to-energy conversion facility within the District.” That set off alarm among D.C. environmentalists, even without explicit mention of incineration. In a January letter to Gray, more than a dozen environmental groups argued that a waste-to-energy incinerator should not even be considered and therefore it was a waste of money to study such an option.

The city’s final solicitation for proposals from consulting firms, issued in March, retreats slightly from the language of Gray’s December announcement. Prospective consultants are told they must develop and compare alternative solid waste-management scenarios with the goal of achieving zero waste “first by producing less waste through reuse, recycling, and composting and then with what waste that remains capturing value from energy production.” Incineration is not explicitly mentioned as an option, nor is it foreclosed.

Hallie Clemm, deputy administrator of D.C.’s Solid Waste Management Division and a key player in the city’s approach to zero waste, has expressed a grimly pessimistic view of the potential for recycling. Speaking at a January forum organized by the D.C. Environmental Network, she said her own study of the city’s residential waste stream showed that no more than 35 percent can be recycled.

“After you’ve recycled it all and you’ve composted it all, and you’ve reduced what you can reduce, and you’ve gotten people not to buy as much and throw out as much, there is still a bunch of stuff that needs to be handled,” Clemm said.

Tackling a frequent objection to incineration, Clemm said that modern mass-burn incinerators are far less dirty than those of an earlier era.

“There’s been a lot of regulation that has been put into place that has made this a much cleaner way to go,” she said.

Ultimately, political realities make it unlikely that a waste-to-energy incinerator will be sited in the District of Columbia, according to Chris Weiss, executive director of the D.C. Environmental Network. Although the idea has been circulating in the Department of Public Works, the prospect of a D.C. incinerator probably lacks support elsewhere within the executive branch or on the City Council, he said.

“I think in the long run it’s not going to happen,” Weiss said.

For his part, Smith remains optimistic about the feasibility of his zero-waste vision for Prince George’s County ─ meaning no incinerator in sight. In an interview after his talk at Community Forklift, he even considered the possibility of going beyond the standard 90-percent benchmark for diverting solid waste from landfills or burning. He was asked if 100 percent is possible.

“Not right now,” Smith said, “not the way we manufacture things and sell things, but who knows?”


Wayne Savage is the owner of Mid-Atlantic Litter Cleanup Service, a Washington, D.C.-based public space litter-removal company.  His background includes one summer as a garbage collector for the Columbia, Mo., Public Works Department. 


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D.C police chief rejects ‘zero tolerance’ approach to minor offenses

By Wayne Savage


D.C. Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier in a recent interview rejected a “zero tolerance” approach to minor offenses in the District of Columbia, asserting that such crackdowns alienate people who are needed to help the police solve crimes.

Lanier’s comment, in a Jan. 27 interview on the C-SPAN television program “Q&A,” comes amid a 22-month-old litter enforcement pilot project that targets pedestrians and others who litter in  non-traffic situations. The pilot project began in MPD’s 4th District and was expanded in August to include the 6th District. (See D.C. police expand litter enforcement pilot project, Aug. 23, 2012.)

Police enforcement of D.C.’s anti-littering law historically has faced multiple obstacles. In 2006, the D.C. Office of Administrative Hearings – an independent tribunal that hears litigation involving city agencies, boards and commissions – ruled that the police department did not have authority to issue citations for littering, which is a civil offense. The OAH overturned that ruling in May 2007 and now recognizes MPD’s litter-ticketing authority. Working together, the OAH and police officials have devised a violation form that officers can use for littering offenses and a protocol for adjudicating the tickets.

In 2008, the D.C. City Council joined the battle with legislation that requires people who are stopped for littering in non-traffic situations to provide police with their true name and address so that a ticket can be issued. Failure to provide the required information was made a criminal offense. The council also prohibited, for the first time in D.C., throwing litter from a moving vehicle.

Testifying in support of the 2008 legislation, an MPD assistant chief stated that “[n]eighborhoods with a lot of litter are at risk of more serious crime and disorder. Ultimately, keeping streets, sidewalks, parks and vacant lots clean is important for keeping our neighborhoods safe.”

MPD Chief Cathy Lanier

         In her Jan. 27 C-SPAN interview, Lanier said a zero-tolerance approach toward minor offenders succeeded in reducing disorder and crime in New York City, but it “is not one that I think works very well here. … We’ve done it and I think it has kind of the opposite impact here.”

Recalling a zero-tolerance push in D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood, Lanier said: “We flood the area with police, we tell them to lock up anybody for any little violation of the law – they do – so they’re getting the guy’s that got an expired permit and taking him to jail. They’re getting the person who is out front with an open container of alcohol, taking her to jail. And what we have forgotten is even though this is the area that has the most violence, it is the area that also has the most victims and the most witnesses. And those witnesses are not going to talk to you.”

Lanier expressed a strong preference for foot patrols that allow police officers to build relationships with people in the community who can provide information about criminal activity. In contrast, she said, “zero tolerance to me in my communities alienates the people we need.”

Litterblog asked MPD spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump whether Lanier’s comments mean the chief does not support the litter enforcement pilot project.

“No, it doesn’t mean that at all,” Crump replied in a written statement. “There is a difference between a judicious use of authority, including for community education, and a zero tolerance approach. Additionally, littering is not a criminal offense under DC code. However, we enforce civil violations.”


Wayne Savage is the owner of Mid-Atlantic Litter Cleanup Service of Washington, D.C.



Solar-powered ‘passive house’ completed in Northeast


A rear view of the new Empowerhouse duplex on Gault Place N.E. Originally designed for the 2011 Solar Decathlon competition, the duplex is the first "passive house" in the District of Columbia. (Photos by Wayne Savage)

By Wayne Savage 


D.C.’s Deanwood neighborhood can now lay claim to the city’s first two homes designed and built with the cutting-edge features of a “passive house” that’s so energy efficient it approaches “net zero” – producing all of the energy it needs.

A Dec. 4 ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Empowerhouse on Gault Place N.E. gave the public a chance to tour the innovative duplex, which emerged from last year’s Solar Decathlon competition. The biennial decathlon, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, challenges collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and appealing to homebuyers.

In its first incarnation at last year’s decathlon in West Potomac Park, Empowerhouse was built as a single-family home by a team of students from two schools — Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., and The New School in New York City. Empowerhouse tied for first place in the decathlon’s affordability category, with an estimated construction cost of $229,890. That was nearly $20,000 less than the estimated cost of the other first-place honoree, a house designed by students from Ghent University in Belgium.  Empowerhouse placed 13th overall out of 19 teams that competed.

“Having come to the [Solar Decathlon] competition several times over the years, it always seemed to me that it was a shame that the houses packed up and left, and so we decided they should stay, and that’s what we did,” said Joel Towers, executive dean of Parsons the New School for Design, one of The New School’s seven divisions.

The Empowerhouse has been reborn in the 4600 block of Gault Place N.E. on three vacant lots donated by the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development. A second story was added, along with an adjoining unit that makes the Empowerhouse a duplex. Each 1,300-square-foot unit has three bedrooms and two baths, plus a 300-square-foot upper deck.

The estimated cost of each unit is now $230,000 to 250,000, not including land, said Susanne Slater, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Washington, D.C., which built the Gault Place duplex in collaboration with the Empowerhouse team from Stevens and The New School.

The cost of a passive house depends on how it is sited, taking into account both topography and its position relative to the sun. D.C.’s Empowerhouse enjoys an awesome site overlooking the Watts Branch stream valley, with large windows at the rear of the house to capture winter sunlight from the south.

 Off-the-shelf materials


Passive house design, more commonly found in Germany, combines virtually airtight construction, super insulation, and a high-tech energy-recovery ventilation system that provides a constant supply of fresh air. The design also eliminates so-called “thermal bridges” that leak heat, such as steel studs in an otherwise well-insulated wall.

A cutaway mockup of an exterior wall at the Empowerhouse shows the 12-inch space filled with shredded newspaper for insulation. Visible on the near side of mockup is a blue electrical outlet box.

A tour of the Gault Place house revealed 12-inch-thick exterior walls filled with shredded newspaper and triple-pane doors and windows that look like transparent bank-vault doors.

Although it features path-breaking design, the Empowerhouse was built “by students and unskilled volunteers using standard building practices and off-the-shelf materials,” said Steve Scribner, the project’s student manager and a recent architecture graduate of Parsons.

Most of the heat in a passive house comes from sunlight, electrical appliances, and the occupants’ own body heat. Shading protects windows from the summer sun.

Proponents of passive-house design say it uses up to 90 percent less energy than traditional homes, with only a small supplemental energy source required. Each unit of the Empowerhouse duplex has a rooftop array of 20 solar panels that produces 5.2-kilowatts of electricity.

Slater said the Empowerhouse is expected to occasionally pull electricity from the grid, “but we have no idea how much,” so Habitat will conduct a two-year study of the residents’ electricity usage.

Dorothy Jackson, a public-housing resident who also works for the D.C. Housing Authority, will move into one of the Empowerhouse units; the other will be occupied by Lakiya Culley, an administrative assistant at the U.S. State Department and the mother of three young boys.

Michael Kelly, director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, said his agency embraced the Empowerhouse from its inception because “it fundamentally meets our mission of providing affordable housing. …  It’s one thing to be able to bring a low-income person into a house at an affordable rate. It’s a whole other thing to keep that family there by making sure that their operating costs become manageable.”

By saving each homeowner at least $2,000 a year in energy costs – a conservative estimate for a net-zero structure – the Empowerhouse will pay back its entire front-end cost over its expected lifetime, said Richard King, the director of the Solar Decathlon.


Building code no obstacle


Towers, the Parsons dean, said D.C. city agencies were “super helpful” as the Empowerhouse team negotiated the building-permit process.

“There is nothing that’s out of code,” said Laura Briggs, a professor of architecture at Parsons. “It’s just that they weren’t used to seeing the way it was done to meet code.”

Of particular note, according to Briggs, is the unusually small heating system in Empowerhouse, a reflection of its drastically reduced heating and cooling load.

Technical expertise for the Empowerhouse project, including training in specialized construction techniques, was provided by Passive House Institute US of Urbana, Ill., a nonprofit organization that promotes passive-house design and certifies passive-house consultants.

Katrin Klingenberg, the institute’s executive director, agreed that D.C. officials “had no problem whatsoever” with the materials and building techniques of the Empowerhouse. But in some locales, she said, building codes take a prescriptive approach by requiring, for example, certain heating and cooling capacities.

“Heating capacity follows the need for heat, which is based on the peak load in a building, and if you’re well-insulated that is much smaller and results in much less capacity needed,” Klingenberg said. “So it’s all science-based. Essentially, you help the officials to shift from a prescriptive [approach] to an understanding that’s performance-based.”


Water management


The Empowerhouse site on Gault Place features innovative rainwater management practices, including porous-pavement driveways. Each unit of the duplex has a 30-gallon rain barrel on its rear deck with overflow to a 1,000-gallon cistern buried in the side yard.  Overflow from the cistern is routed to a rain garden at the rear of the house, where a depressed bed of gravel topped by a layer of nutrient-rich soil disperses the water and supports plants that thrive in a wet environment. A similar arrangement of gravel and topsoil along the front sidewalk collects storm water from the street, with overflow to the rain garden.

“The water-management system here is definitely a very extreme eco-friendly and kind of cutting-edge technology to try and accept the water that’s coming [from rain] and use, rather than just dumping it into the sewers,” said Dan Hines, a Habitat construction supervisor.

Habitat plans to build six additional passive houses on Central Place N.E. in the Ivy City neighborhood. They were designed by Zavos Architecture + Design of Frederick, Md.


Litterblog notes with regret that, for the first time since the Solar Decathlon’s inception in 2002, it will move next year from Washington, D.C., to Irvine, Calif.  The 20 competitors at the 2013 Solar Decathlon will include a team of collaborating students from American University, the Catholic University of America, and George Washington University.


Wayne Savage is the owner of Mid-Atlantic Litter Cleanup Service, a Washington, D.C.-based public space litter-removal company. He was a volunteer with the bicycle valet service at the 2011 Solar Decathlon. 









Cousteau headlines seventh annual trash summit

Jean-Michel Cousteau, president of the Ocean Futures Society and son of famed underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau, will be the featured speaker next month at the 7th Annual Potomac Watershed Trash Summit in Silver Spring.

Organized by the Alice Ferguson Foundation, the trash summit brings together key decision-makers from business, government and non-profit organizations to collaborate on strategies for eliminating trash in the waterways, streets, and public lands of the Potomac River watershed. The watershed covers parts of four states and the District of Columbia.

Cousteau heads the Ocean Futures Society, a non-profit marine conservation and education organization based in Santa Barbara, Calif. He has produced more than 80 films and received multiple awards, including an Emmy, for his work highlighting the ocean’s vital role in sustaining all life on Earth.

Other speakers at the trash summit will discuss progress of the Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative and other topics that include public policy and grassroots efforts to encourage trash reduction.

The trash summit is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. November 7 at the Silver Spring Civic Building. The $50 registration fee includes lunch. To register for the summit, visit the Alice Ferguson Foundation’s website.


─Wayne Savage  





D.C. police expand litter enforcement pilot project

A 16-month-old pilot project to enforce the District of Columbia’s anti-littering law against pedestrians has been expanded to include a second police district.

On Sept. 1, officers in the 6th District, which lies east of the Anacostia River and north of Good Hope Road, will start writing $75 tickets to pedestrians and others who litter in non-traffic situations, according to a statement from the Metropolitan Police Department. Warning tickets are being issued in the 6th District during the month of August.

The litter enforcement pilot project targeting pedestrians and others in non-traffic situations began in April 2011 in MPD’s 4th District, which is east of Rock Creek Park and north of Park Road N.W. and Michigan Avenue N.E. The project stems from legislation enacted by the D.C. City Council in 2008 which requires pedestrians and others stopped for non-traffic littering to provide their true names and addresses to police so that tickets can be issued. The tickets are adjudicated by the D.C. Office of Administrative Hearings, an independent tribunal.

As of  May 17, only 14 tickets had been issued by officers in the 4th District, and only two fines paid, according to records released by OAH. Most of the persons who received tickets apparently ignored them, resulting in unpaid default judgments. [See “D.C.’s anti-litter crackdown reveals gaps in law” (Posted July 2, 2012.)]

“We still haven’t had enough tickets written to know what kind of an impact it’s going to have [and] whether the process is going to work,” said Sgt. Keith DuBeau of MPD’s Office of Strategic Change.

But initial reports from the 6th District are encouraging, according to DuBeau.

“The people over there really seem to be excited about” the pilot project, he said. “We have a lot of warning tickets already.”

DuBeau said it is unclear if more littering occurs in the 6th District or if the officers there are more engaged in the enforcement effort.  Warning tickets will be issued through the end of this month, DuBeau noted, “[t]hen we’ll see how many real tickets we get.”

The 2008 anti-litter legislation also gave D.C. police, for the first time, the authority to stop vehicles for littering and issue tickets. The fine for littering from a vehicle is $100.

Since the law took effect in March 2009, MPD’s 6th District has led the department in the number of tickets issued for vehicular littering. According to the police department’s annual reports for 2009 through 2011, a total of 79 such tickets were issued in the 6th District during those three years. The second largest total, 73 tickets, was reported in the 7th District, which is east of the Anacostia River and south of Good Hope Road.


 −Wayne Savage



For further reading: Metropolitan Police Department Special Order SO-12-19 (July 25, 2012) Littering Enforcement Pilot Project Program Phase II


East of the River: August shuttle service links National Mall, Anacostia cultural sites


By Wayne Savage


A temporary shuttle-bus service from the National Mall makes August an ideal time to visit two important D.C. cultural sites east of the Anacostia River.

Starting Saturday, Aug. 4, and continuing each weekend in August, the free shuttle bus will link the Mall to the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum and to the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

Shuttle stops on the Mall will be the Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Drive S.W., and the Air & Space Museum. The shuttle also will stop at the Anacostia Metro Station. For a complete shuttle schedule, click here.

The Anacostia Community Museum, which has reopened its public spaces after a major lighting upgrade. (Photos by Wayne Savage)

The Anacostia Community Museum, founded in 1967, traditionally has focused on the African American experience from a community perspective. Now emphasizing more broadly the concept of community, the museum maintains strong ties to Anacostia and the Washington region.

Public spaces of the museum reopened this week after a closure of almost three months to accommodate a major lighting upgrade.  The museum exhibition “Separate and Unequaled: Black Baseball in the District of Columbia” has returned to public view.

Special weekend programs scheduled for August include the following (call 202-633-4844 for reservations):

● Aug. 4, 10 a.m.: Collage-design workshop with Jay Coleman.                                 

● Aug. 5, 2 p.m.: East of the River Boys and Girls Steelband.

● Aug. 11, 10:30 a.m.: Performance artist Kwelismith on Harriett Tubman and the Underground Railroad.

● Aug. 12, 2 p.m.: Tour of public art east of the Anacostia. (Meet at the museum no later than 1:50 p.m.)

● Aug. 19, 2 p.m.: Clothing consultant and apron designer Velma Crawford on her grandmother’s inspirational influence.

 ● Aug. 25, 2 p.m.: Eileen Torres and others discuss female musicians in the male-dominated world of Salsa music. Jim Byers of WPFW-FM moderates. The band All-Star Female Descarga performs.


Behind the scenes


Behind-the-scenes tours of the museum, which highlight rarely seen artifacts from the museum collection and preservation efforts, are offered at 10 a.m. every Friday in August. Call 202-633-4844 for reservations, and meet at the museum’s staff entrance no later than 9:55 a.m.

On a recent Friday morning, your litter blogger was fortunate to join one of the behind-the-scenes tours. Our guide was Jennifer Morris, an archivist at the museum, though various staff members rotate the duty of leading tours.

Our tour group passed by a piano once owned by Madame Lillian Evanti, an internationally renowned opera singer who was born in Washington. The museum’s holdings include the Evanti family-history collection.

In the archives storage room, we saw an original copy of Frederick Douglass’ abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator. The chilly photo-storage room, among its many images, holds a photo of Douglass returning by ship from his post as U.S. minister to Haiti.

The museum’s archives also include rare audio recordings and other items related to the work of Lorenzo Dow Turner, a pioneering linguist who graduated from Howard University and earned graduate degrees from Harvard University and the University of Chicago.  His research in the 1930s among the Gullah people of the South Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands established links between their creole language and the West African languages of their ancestors.

  On September 17, the museum will launch a new exhibition, “Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement,” that examines efforts to restore the Anacostia River and other urban waterways beset with pollution. The exhibit will run through August 11, 2013.


Cedar Hill


The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site preserves Cedar Hill, the home where the great abolitionist, orator, and newspaper publisher lived from 1878 until his death in 1895. During that time, Douglass was U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia, the District’s recorder of deeds, and U.S. minister to Haiti and chargé d’affaires to the Dominican Republic.  

Cedar Hill, the home where Frederick Douglass lived from 1878 until his death in 1895.

 Cedar Hill afforded Douglass a commanding view. As a park ranger noted during a recent tour of the house, to the northeast Douglass could see the rolling hills of Maryland, the border state where he was born into slavery; to the northwest, barely more than a mile away, was the imposing dome of the U.S. Capitol, symbol of a federal government that held the promise of full civil rights for freedmen.

The historic site will feature a family festival from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 5, with music; crafts; house tours; bike rides; free ice cream and popcorn; and Massachusetts 54th reenactors.

Tours of Cedar Hill are scheduled six times daily through October 31. Admission is free.


Wayne Savage is the owner of Mid-Atlantic Litter Cleanup Service, a Washington-based public space litter removal service.       






D.C.’s anti-litter crackdown reveals gaps in law

By Wayne Savage


More than three years after the D.C. City Council enacted ground-breaking anti-litter legislation, an initial burst of enforcement activity has slowed. Police are ticketing fewer motorists, and a pilot project expanding the crackdown to pedestrians appears stalled.

The Metropolitan Police Department issued 225 tickets for littering from a vehicle in 2009, the year the new legislation took effect. Since then, enforcement numbers have plummeted. There were 63 tickets issued in 2010 and 64 in 2011. Of the 352 tickets issued over the three-year period, 62 were dismissed.

Headquarters for the Metropolitan Police Department's 4th District, where a pilot project is underway to enforce D.C.'s anti-littering law against pedestrians and others in non-traffic situations. (Photo by Wayne Savage)

On May 1 of 2011, amid a splash of publicity, MPD further implemented the new legislation by launching a pilot project in its 4th District to target pedestrians and other persons who litter in non-traffic situations. Initially envisioned as lasting a few months, with citywide enforcement possibly coming as early as the fall of 2011, the pilot project remains confined to the 4th District, which is east of Rock Creek Park and north of Park Road N.W. and Michigan Avenue N.E.

Only 14 tickets for non-traffic littering had been issued through May 17 of this year, with the most recent ticket dated February 4, according to records released by the D.C. Office of Administrative Hearings. Only two fines had been paid.

The Office of Administrative Hearings ― an independent tribunal that hears litigation involving more than 40 city agencies, boards and commissions ― adjudicates tickets for littering in non-traffic situations. Tickets for littering from vehicles follow a separate legal track, with adjudication by the Department of Motor Vehicles.


                                                      Law expands police powers


Enacted with police backing, the Anti-Littering Amendment Act of 2008 outlawed, for the first time in the District of Columbia, littering from a moving vehicle. That’s right, the police used to have no legal authority to stop a driver who tossed a greasy Big Mac wrapper or, for that matter, the Big Mac itself from a moving vehicle. Now the police can stop the offending driver and issue a ticket that carries a $100 fine.

The new law also requires pedestrians and others stopped for non-traffic littering to provide their true names and addresses to police so tickets can be issued. Persons who refuse to identify themselves can be fined up to $250, although the law does not require them to show police officers any documents to establish their identity.

The fine for non-traffic littering is $75.

Although other crimes are more serious, “littering is still an important offense against the community,” said MPD Assistant Chief Joshua Ederheimer in testimony to the city council’s public safety committee in 2008. “Neighborhoods with a lot of litter are at risk of more serious crime and disorder.”

Ederheimer’s assessment follows the so-called Broken Windows Theory of urban crime. First proposed by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in 1982, the theory holds that signs of social disorder in an urban community ― such as vandalism, littering, and graffiti ― encourage more serious crimes. Though not without controversy, the Broken Windows Theory was touted by New York City Mayor Rudolf Giuliani and his police commissioner in the 1990s, and it is now widely accepted by law-enforcement officials.

D.C.’s Anti-Littering Amendment Act took effect in March of 2009. By the end of 2011, the city’s seven police districts showed wide variations in the number of tickets issued for littering from moving vehicles. The 6th District, which lies east of the Anacostia River and north of Good Hope Road, topped the list with 79 tickets. The fewest, 14 tickets, were reported in the 3rd District, which includes Adams-Morgan, Columbia Heights, Shaw, Mt. Pleasant, and Dupont Circle.

Initial enforcement of the law was limited to littering from vehicles. According to the Metropolitan Police Department, enforcement of the ban on non-traffic littering could not begin until further legislation took effect in January 2011 waiving juvenile confidentiality for such tickets adjudicated by OAH.

On April 27 of last year, four days before MPD finally launched its 4th District pilot project to enforce the anti-littering law against pedestrians, Mayor Vincent Gray announced the move in a sternly worded news release.

“Clean cities are livable cities,” Gray said. “But the Department of Public Works can’t be expected to clean up after all of our residents. Sometimes we have to bring the force of law to bear to make sure our residents and visitors treat our city as they would their own homes.”

A year later, with only 14 tickets issued through the pilot project, none of them to juveniles, and only two fines collected, the results seemed to mock Gray’s get-tough talk. Most of those who received tickets for non-traffic littering apparently ignored them, resulting in default judgments entered by OAH.

In his 2008 testimony, Ederheimer, the MPD assistant chief, foreshadowed the lackluster impact of issuing toothless tickets for littering in non-traffic situations.

“[M]ost civil violations are only effective because they are tied to property interests or a privilege that people value,” Ederheimer said, citing as examples property subject to liens, professional licenses, or, most commonly, drivers’ licenses.

“People follow traffic regulations because there are real consequences for not following them ― fines for violations are backed up by the suspension of a driver’s license or revocation of vehicle registration if the fines are not paid,” Ederheimer said.

Not so with littering tickets in non-traffic situations, a theme emphasized by the MPD in its most recent annual report.

“Without repercussions for an offense, the government’s ability to hold violators accountable for this civil offense is limited, and the tickets may not be enough … to change their behavior,” the police department stated.


                                                      Holistic approach to litter                                                      


Efforts to breathe life into D.C.’s Anti-Littering Amendment Act raise the larger question of law enforcement’s proper role in addressing the litter problem. In recommending the 2008 legislation, the D.C. City Council’s public safety committee stated that enforcement against littering should be part of a larger public-education campaign and voluntary-compliance program.

The Alice Ferguson Foundation, which helped coordinate a Litter Enforcement Month involving 10 Washington-area jurisdictions in April, has been nudging the region’s police agencies in recent years to beef up enforcement of anti-littering laws as part of its effort to protect the Potomac River watershed. The foundation views law enforcement as a key element of a “holistic” approach to litter that includes public education, said Clara Elias, a program associate at the foundation.

“We believe by stepping up enforcement efforts we can change behavior,” she said.

A 2008 survey of residents in the Potomac River watershed revealed that only 6 percent thought there was a chance they could be caught for littering, a finding reinforced by focus groups of confessed litterers, according to Elias.

“One of the reasons that we heard over and over again was they thought they could get away with it,” she said.

The foundation conducts training for law-enforcement personnel in litter enforcement and is working with the Metropolitan Police Department to devise a training manual that will become part of MPD’s continuing-education program for officers.

Meanwhile, there appears to be no immediate plan to roll out a citywide version of the MPD pilot project that targets non-traffic littering.

“We are looking into expanding [the pilot project] in the future,” department spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said. “I don’t know when, though.”


Wayne Savage is the owner of Mid-Atlantic Litter Cleanup Service, a Washington, D.C.-based public space litter-removal company.


For further reading:


“Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,” The Atlantic Magazine, March 1982


Mayor Vincent C. Gray news release (“Mayor Gray Announces Kickoff of the Metropolitan Police Littering Enforcement Pilot Program”) (4-27-11)


Metropolitan Police Department Annual Report for 2011 (See Appendix D: Littering Enforcement in D.C.)


‘Truck Touch’ event highlights big rigs that clean cityscape


 By Wayne Savage


Litterblog was on the scene at the D.C. government’s fifth annual “Truck Touch” event June 16 at RFK Stadium, where big rigs from city agencies were available for inspection and horn-honking. Should have brought our ear plugs!

The fire trucks had the longest lines, of course, but your litter blogger headed straight for the equipment that cleans our streets and storm drains.

First up was the Stetco catch-basin cleaner, which looks like a dump truck with a boom attached. At the end of the boom, suspended by cables, is a clamshell bucket that’s narrow enough to slip though a manhole cover and grab whatever debris are in a catch basin.

Otherwise known as storm drains, catch basins usually are built into street curbs, where they gather rainwater and trash that washes off the pavement. From there, the water flows through pipes to rivers and streams or to the Blue Plains sewage-treatment plant. Though an essential feature of the urban infrastructure, catch basins rarely are noticed unless they become clogged with debris, causing street flooding.

D.C. has more than 25,000 catch basins, according to DC Water, which fields a fleet of catch-basin trucks, each with a two-person crew, to clean the basins once a year. DC Water, formerly known as the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, states that 23 tons of debris are removed from the catch basins every day. The cleaning schedule rotates among various sectors of the city, with crews currently working on the catch basins in the vicinity of South Dakota Avenue N.E.

At the June 16 event, I met Kevin Cockrell, a DC Water veteran who has been operating a catch-basin cleaner for 11 years. I asked him to identify the most common article found in the basins.

“Bottles,” he said. “That’s our big issue.”

Even when trash cans are available on the sidewalk, Cockrell said, people still put their trash in the basin.

Kevin Cockrell of DC Water demonstrates the catch-basin cleaner by dropping a large piece of wood into his truck. (Photos by Wayne Savage)

To demonstrate his prowess with the catch-basin cleaner, Cockrell clamped onto a single green plastic bottle with the Stetco’s bucket, lifted it up and gingerly placed it in a standing position on top of his truck. A crowd of onlookers applauded.

Cockrell said he’s seen fewer plastic bags in the catch basins since D.C. imposed a 5-cent bag fee in January 2010.

“[N]o one wants to pay the 5 cents, and that’s definitely getting lighter,” he said.

Cockrell finds that most catch basins hold at least some water, even during the dry summer months.

“Might be a foot of high water, might be inches of water,” he said. “Depends on how high the outlet is in our basin.”

After cleaning the catch basins, Cockrell tosses in some mosquito-control pellets to prevent growth of their larvae.

In Cockrell’s telling, each basin has its own story, and you never know what you might find inside.

“You just find random stuff,” he said. “Like a turtle was in there the other day. Yeah, he couldn’t get out, so I had to try to get him and put him on the street, but he kept running.”

Sometimes criminals toss guns into the catch basins in an effort to hide evidence. DC Water crews have aided police on more than one occasion by cleaning out a basin and sifting through the debris for a weapon.

Then there is the lore of truly odd ­― and disturbing ― discoveries.

“They say in the ’70s someone found a finger,” Cockrell said.

Yikes! I thanked Cockrell for his insights, then headed over to the giant orange Elgin street sweeper.

You’ve no doubt seen D.C.’s mechanical street sweepers in action. Two observations: (1) The outward appearance of Elgin’s three-wheel Pelican model hasn’t changed much since the 1950s, and (2) it’s rather goofy-looking, as if designed by a committee of drunken cartoonists.

Mike Moylan, with Maryland Industrial Trucks Inc., was on hand to talk about the street sweepers he sells to the District of Columbia, his largest customer. He said D.C. has a fleet of 35 street sweepers, including two that run on compressed natural gas (CNG).

The street sweepers range in price from $150,000 to about $300,000, with the CNG sweepers costing about $100,000 more than traditional diesel sweepers, although the cost of diesel rigs is increasing as they are upgraded to comply with clean-air standards, according to Moylan.

Children enjoy a close look at an Elgin street sweeper during the fifth annual "Truck Touch" event at RFK Stadium.

As a steady stream of parents hoisted their kids into the cab of the CNG sweeper on display, I talked with Paul Sneed, a D.C. Department of Public Works employee who has been driving street sweepers for 10 years.

Describing his work week, Sneed said he cleans established routes Monday through Thursday, then joins other sweepers on Friday to clean designated “hot spots” as needed.

Sneed said he may cover 40 miles a day in his sweeper, including travel to and from his cleaning route.

The sweeper’s maximum speed should be no more than 5 to 8 miles per hour when cleaning, Sneed said.

“But keep in mind,” he said, “when we’re driving in the neighborhood, you’ve got the bicycles, Metrobus, cab drivers, UPS, you’ve got FedEx. We’ve all got to share the same road.”

Sneed said his major concern is not hitting anyone with the street sweeper. The big rigs have large windows for visibility, multiple mirrors, and, on the newest CNG models, a video camera in back.

Some D.C. streets are designated for weekly sweeping, with a requirement that residents move their parked vehicles away from the curb for a few hours. That’s better for the street sweepers, Sneed said, “because it’s easier to clean in a straight path than cutting in, cutting out” around parked cars. When the sweepers cut out from the curb, he said, they often drag along some of the trash and it doesn’t have a chance to work itself into the sweeper’s hopper.

The hopper can hold 3.5 cubic yards of trash. When it’s full, the operator raises the hopper to drop the accumulated trash into a dump truck.

“When we first come back [on March 1 after a winter hiatus], it’s real dirty,” Sneed said. “The sand, the salt from the snow season, so you may dump it about three times a day, do the whole A.M. route and P.M. route. Then about this time of year ― June, July ― the streets are pretty clean … caught up, so you may dump it once a day.”

Streets are swept in the District of Columbia only from March 1 through October 31 because the cold temperatures of winter months could freeze the water that sweepers spray onto the streets, causing hazardous conditions.

“You’ve got to like doing it,” Sneed said, reflecting on his work. “It can’t be just a job. … You’ve got a lot of things moving at one time, so you’ve got to have a passion for it.”


Wayne Savage is the owner of Mid-Atlantic Litter Cleanup Service, a Washington, D.C.-based public space litter removal service.






Bald eagle sighted in Takoma D.C. neighborhood

A young bald eagle perches in a tree Saturday near the intersection of 7th and Underwood streets N.W. (Photos courtesy of Carolivia Herron)

An apparent bald eagle was sighted briefly Saturday in the Takoma D.C. neighborhood.

The immature bald eagle, a dusky color with characteristic white mottling on its breast, landed in a large tree in the 6500 block of 7th Street N.W., near the home of Carolivia Herron, who recorded the unusual event with her video camera.

Herron said she and her mother, Georgia Herron, were alerted to the eagle’s arrival around 5:30 p.m. by the noisy reception it got from Georgia’s dog, Hezekiah, and some very agitated crows.

“The animals were distressed.” said Carolivia Herron. Even her normally self-confident cat, Xanthus, who was outside, “came slinking in,” apparently aware that something was amiss.

Georgia Herron spotted the eagle perched in the largest tree on the block behind a neighbor’s house two doors away. When Carolivia saw how large the bird was, she ran to get her video camera.

Carolivia Herron said her mother feeds the neighborhood birds in their wooded backyard, and they occasionally have seen red-winged hawks, but Saturday’s visitor was much larger.

“It was like he could put one [red-winged hawk] under his arm, you wouldn’t even notice it, it was so big,” Herron said.

Turning on her video camera as she ran back outside, Carolivia Herron captured several minutes of action as about a half dozen crows flew around the eagle and a mockingbird dive-bombed it, all to little effect.

The eagle “was just snapping at them when they came close and looking around,” Herron said. She described the eagle as more playful than menacing as it snapped at its antagonists.

Though known for majestically swooping into rivers and streams to prey on fish, their  primary food, bald eagles are gastronomic opportunists and sometimes eat carrion. Saturday’s visitor to Takoma D.C. might have been attracted by a dead opossum on 7th Street in front of the Herron house. The nearest significant bodies of water are Rock Creek, one mile to the west, and Sligo Creek, two miles to the east.

The eagle eventually flew south in the direction of Underwood Street, Carolivia Herron said.


Update (9:37 a.m. 4-18-12): Nick Bartolomeo, chief ranger at Rock Creek Park, said today there are no bald-eagle nests in the park but that an adult bald eagle was sighted by park staff near Peirce Mill within the past two weeks. The mill is on Rock Creek near the intersection of Beach Drive and Tilden Street N.W.


─Wayne Savage


For more information: Cornell University Lab of Ornithology bald-eagle site




D.C.’s community gardens: where trend and tradition meet

By Wayne Savage


Growing up on the outskirts of a Midwestern college town in the 1960s and ’70s, I was thoroughly unimpressed with my father’s annual ritual of putting in a vegetable garden. To me, it was just … work.  But my father, an agrarian native of the Arkansas Ozarks, was immensely proud of his fresh sweet corn and tomatoes.

One of his colleagues who lived in the middle of town went even further, converting his entire backyard into a vegetable garden, complete with a vast crop of shoulder-high sweet corn. No doubt his neighbors thought he was a bit odd. But really he and my father were 30 years ahead of their time, considering today’s trend toward local and organic food production.

In the District of Columbia, the trend is seen in the burgeoning popularity of our 36 community gardens spread over the city on open land provided by the D.C. government and the National Park Service. A typical plot of 625 square feet rents for just $30 for the annual growing season. Water is included.

Jerome Manigan clears debris from his plot at the Blair Road Community Garden in preparation for planting. Manigan, who has had a plot at the Blair Road site for more than 20 years, plans to grow onions, tomatoes, okra, squash, green beans, and peppers, with a fall crop to follow that includes mustard and collard greens. (Photo by Wayne Savage)

The traditional and the trendy meet in D.C.’s community gardens, where middle-age and elderly men and women who have grown vegetables for years ─ often relying on deep cultural knowledge passed down for generations ─ mingle with 20-something urban hipsters who view producing their own food as part of an eco-friendly lifestyle.

An excellent list of the city’s community gardens can be found at the website of D.C.’s Field to Fork Network. Complete with contact information, photos, and a detailed description of each garden, the list was compiled by the Neighborhood Farm Initiative, a non-profit project that promotes small-scale food production in the Washington area.

A census conducted by the Neighborhood Farm Initiative in 2010 found that most of the city’s community gardens have waiting lists, which suggests that additional gardens are needed. Indeed, one garden manager I spoke with implored me not to make any referrals to him, as he already has all he can handle.

With that in mind, residents interested in joining a community garden can expect stiff competition, and perhaps a long wait, for vacant plots. Good to know that the Neighborhood Farm Initiative has produced a guide for starting new community gardens.

Many resources are available in the District of Columbia to aspiring gardeners, whether they rent space in a community garden or just set up improvised containers on a back porch or condo balcony. A good starting point for gardening news and advice is the D.C. Urban Gardeners Yahoo group. Recent postings have included the best time to plant potatoes, an offer of free compost, and an earnest discussion of the finer points of mulch.

Every February, various organizations collaborate through the Field to Fork Network to put on the free Rooting DC Forum, which offers a wealth of information about urban gardening in Washington. Check out this helpful guide, distributed at last month’s forum, describing “The 10 Easiest Vegetables to Grow.”

But first things first: What about seeds? I recommend Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, both of which promote heirloom varieties and seeds that are not genetically engineered. Baker Creek states in its catalog that it “boycott[s] all gene-altering companies” and Southern Exposure, based in Mineral, Va., has joined with 82 other plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the Public Patent Foundation to challenge Monsanto Co.’s patents on genetically modified seed.

Once the harvest begins, no D.C. gardener should overlook our state fair. Yes, D.C. has a state fair! Now in its third year, this year’s fair will be from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 22 at the Barracks Row Fall Festival on Eighth Street S.E. just south of the Eastern Market Metro station. The fair features contests for vegetables, baked goods (cupcakes!), and crafts.


Update (April 10, 2012):  The D.C. Urban Gardeners Yahoo site has announced the opening of a new community garden at 14th and Euclid streets in Columbia Heights. The Euclid Street Community Garden is open to those who live within a one-mile radius. An organizing meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 17, at the Columbia Heights Community Center, 1480 Girard Street N.W.


Wayne Savage is the owner of Mid-Atlantic Litter Cleanup Service. He rents a plot at the Peabody Garden Club, where he grows heirloom vegetables and an occasional novelty crop such as cotton or popcorn.













“Kojo Nnamdi Show” to discuss bottled water

Today’s “Kojo Nnamdi Show” on WAMU radio (88.5 FM) will discuss the issue of bottled water on college campuses. The segment, titled “Ban the Bottle,” begins at 12:06 p.m. E.D.T. If you head to the show’s website, also check out the audio archive of an earlier segment, from Aug. 15, 2007, titled “Bottled Water Controversies.”


Update (March 22, 2012): The discussion featured, as one of Nnamdi’s guests, Chris Hogan, vice president for communications at the International Bottled Water Association. Hogan made the rather astonishing statement that bottled water doesn’t compete with tap water, but merely other bottled beverages such as soda and fruit drinks. That’s one claim that’s hard to swallow, so to speak, in light of the many bottled-water ads over the years that have denigrated, either explicitly or by implication, the safety and taste of tap water. (Audio of the show, and a transcript, are posted on the Kojo Nnamdi Show website.)


–Wayne Savage


The beverage container deposit: an idea worth recycling

By Wayne Savage


You might call it the great recycling paradox: As curbside recycling programs proliferated across the United States in the late 1990s, overall recycling rates for beverage containers actually dropped.

The high-water mark for beverage container recycling, it turns out, was 20 years ago, in 1992, when 54 percent of cans and bottles were recycled, according to the Container Recycling Institute, a nonprofit organization that advocates for comprehensive recycling of packaging materials. Since 1992, according to CRI, the overall recycling rate for beverage containers has plummeted and now only a third of beverage cans and bottles are recycled.

Recycling rates crashed even as the number of curbside recycling programs in the United States swelled from about 2,700 in 1990 to more than 9,700 ten years later, according to BioCycle magazine.

Blame the paradox on increased consumption of canned and bottled beverages, often in public spaces where recycling programs don’t reach. The upsurge in consumption is partly the result of population growth. More surprising, perhaps, is a jump in annual per-capita consumption of canned and bottled beverages in recent decades – from 319 in 1980 to 721 in 2006, according to CRI.


Then and now: Returnable-style glass soft-drink bottle (1988), left, and plastic water bottle (2012)

Almost all of the per-capita increase can be traced to the bottled-water mania of recent years, led by such brands as Coca-Cola’s Dasani and Nestlé Waters’ Poland Spring. Consumption of bottled water leaped from about 3.2 billion gallons in 1995 to 8.75 billion gallons in 2010, according to Beverage Marketing Corp., a consulting and financial-services firm. That translates into a lot of bottles; annual sales of plastic water bottles rose from fewer than 3 billion in 1996 to nearly 36 billion in 2006.

As more Americans chug more canned and bottled drinks, overall recycling rates haven’t kept pace. Industry figures show that only 29 percent of plastic bottles are recycled. Glass beer bottles and glass soft-drink bottles collected by municipalities are recycled at the rate of 41.4 percent, while the rate for wine and liquor bottles is even lower, at 24.7 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The one relative bright spot is the recycling rate for aluminum cans, which pushed past 58 percent in 2010, according to industry figures. CRI reports that aluminum cans account for about half of all beverage containers sold.

As low as reported recycling rates are, CRI argues that most are inflated because they don’t take into account important factors such as contamination of recycled containers.


Everyday impact


Lackluster recycling rates aren’t just a theoretical issue for eco-nerds to debate. Their impact is seen every day in the litter soiling our communities and washing into streams and rivers.

During last April’s annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup, volunteers collected 519 bags of recyclable cans and bottles from 36 sites along Rock Creek and its tributaries in the District of Columbia and Montgomery County, according to Beth Mullin, executive director of the Rock Creek Conservancy.  The deluge of beverage containers into the creek has continued despite curbside recycling programs adopted by Montgomery County in 1991, followed by D.C. in 1998.

Virginia state law required all counties, cities, and towns to establish recycling programs more than 20 years ago. But detailed reports from the Izaak Walton League show the meager impact of those programs on litter. In September 2010, for example, volunteers from the league’s Arlington-Fairfax chapter collected 223 plastic bottles, 48 aluminum cans, and 37 glass bottles from Bull Run. Those containers comprised nearly 22 percent of the litter recovered from the stream, apart from tires. (Styrofoam fragments were by far the largest component at 61.2 percent.)

The number of beverage containers washing into streams can surge following heavy rainfall, as occurred in early September 2008 when the remnants of a tropical storm swept through the Washington area. A week later, volunteers from the Izaak Walton League reported that bottles and cans comprised three-quarters of the debris they collected from Bull Run.

After the April 2011 cleanup, the Alice Ferguson Foundation announced that volunteers had removed a total of 48.4 tons of recyclable glass, aluminum and plastic bottles from the Potomac River watershed, which covers D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and two other states. Keep in mind, it’s an annual watershed cleanup, so expect a similar figure in April, after another year of litter washing into the Potomac and its tributaries.

“A lot of beverage containers are consumed away from home . . . so curbside recycling is only a partial solution,” said CRI’s executive director, Susan Collins, at last October’s annual Potomac Watershed Trash Summit in Arlington. The summit, which brings together public officials and environmentalists, is organized by the Alice Ferguson Foundation to further its goal of a “trash-free Potomac” by 2013.


Back to the future


Collins’ group is promoting an idea that was trendy back in the 1970s and 1980s, but has since been eclipsed, in the public mind, by curbside recycling programs: beverage container deposit laws, commonly known as “bottle bills.” Eleven states have enacted bottle bills, led by Oregon in 1971. Delaware repealed its law in 2010 in favor of statewide curbside recycling, leaving 10 states with bottle bills in effect.

States with beverage container deposit laws show much higher recycling rates, according to CRI. In a study based on 2006 data, CRI found that the overall recycling rate of beverage containers was 61.4 percent in states with deposit laws, compared to 24.2 percent elsewhere.

When it comes to recycling, money speaks louder than eco-ethics: Michigan’s 10-cent deposit is the highest in the nation, and nearly 97 percent of deposits are redeemed, suggesting that Michigan has the nation’s best recycling rate, even assuming that some cans and bottles come from outside the state for illegal redemption.

States with beverage container deposits also report substantial reductions in litter. New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, for example, describes that state’s 30-year-old bottle bill as “a tremendous success” that has reduced roadside container litter by 70 percent.


D.C.’s bottle-bill battle


Longtime residents of the District of Columbia will recall a hotly contested, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempt in 1986-87 to enact a D.C. beverage container deposit law. Appearing on the ballot in November 1987 following a petition drive, the measure was defeated by a vote of 55 percent to 45 percent.

Proponents of the D.C. bottle bill were blindsided by ferocious pushback from a coalition of beverage producers and distributors, container manufacturers, and retailers both large and small. The industry coalition spent nearly $2.3 million to defeat the proposed bottle bill, an unheard of amount at the time. The money bought not only television and radio ads, direct mail, and telephone calls, but also an army of paid ward and precinct workers.

Deliberately or not, the industry campaign drew strength from longstanding racial and economic fault lines within D.C., faint echoes of which were heard in 2009 during the successful effort to enact a 5-cent fee on disposable bags.  The industry’s core argument was that beverage container deposits would burden consumers  ̶  especially the low-income and elderly  ̶  with higher costs and inconvenience.  Retailers also worried about the burden of storing dirty used containers and losing business to nearby jurisdictions that had no deposit laws.

Industry arguments against the bottle bill eventually were echoed by key players in D.C.’s political establishment, including city council members, the local chapter of the NAACP, and a group of 130 ministers. Proponents of the bill countered that a deposit law would not only reduce litter in the city but also create hundreds of jobs in the recycling industry.

On election day, the Washington Post reported, the bottle bill received overwhelming support in the city’s majority-white voting precincts but fell to defeat as black precincts “just as resoundingly rejected the deposit measure.”


Trash under the bridge


Given that history, a renewed effort to enact beverage container laws in the Washington area might seem ill-advised. But D.C.’s bottle-bill campaign of 1987 was a generation ago, and a lot of trash has passed under the bridge since then. Three factors converge to make this the right time to revisit the issue:

● After 14 years or more of curbside recycling in the Washington area, it is clear that such an approach does not address the problem of beverage container litter in public space away from people’s homes and businesses. Deposit laws are an essential part of a comprehensive solution to litter.

● The beverage container deposit laws in 10 states have matured, been tweaked by legislatures, and proven both their worth and practicality.  For example, to mitigate retailers’ concerns, most states with deposit laws now use a system of special recycling centers, either alone or in combination with retailers, to accept used beverage containers. There are even “reverse vending machines” in some locales that accept and crush empty cans and plastic bottles for pickup from retail stores.

● Public perception of the litter problem has evolved, as shown by the D.C. City Council’s unanimous adoption of the 5-cent bag fee to help clean up the Anacostia River.  A survey funded by the D.C. Department of the Environment in 2010 revealed that 70 percent of city residents are bothered “a lot” when they see litter on the ground or in the water – though 40 percent admit to littering themselves. (Montgomery County has enacted its own bag fee, which took effect January 1, and the Prince George’s County Council voted 8-0 last week to impose a 5-cent bag tax, although that measure failed to gain necessary approval in the Maryland General Assembly.)


Redeeming the pledge


Nearly 200 elected officials in the Washington area have signed the Alice Ferguson Foundation’s “Potomac River Watershed Trash Treaty” in the past seven years, thereby pledging to implement trash-reduction strategies. Enacting beverage container deposit laws would be one way to show they mean it.

To be sure, the defeat of D.C.’s bottle bill 25 years ago offers some sobering lessons, chief among them that grassroots organizing at the neighborhood level is essential to building support for a deposit law. Retailer concerns must be addressed, and region-wide beverage container deposit laws are preferable to piecemeal adoption by individual jurisdictions.

Bottle bills understandably are anathema to the beverage industry. A mandatory deposit on cans and bottles upends its business model, which imposes on society at large – in other words, taxpayers – the cost of container disposal. As Collins told the trash summit, adopting deposit laws embeds the cost of waste disposal in the purchase price of beverages and “makes producers and consumers responsible for their waste, not taxpayers.”

More than two decades after D.C. voters rejected a bottle bill, its appeal to fundamental fairness in public policy is an idea worth recycling.


Update (June 25, 2013): D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray’s Sustainable DC Plan includes, as one of its ambitious goals, introduction of a container-deposit law for all glass and plastic bottles. (See Action 1.4 in the plan, which is available at www.sustainable.dc.gov/finalplan).


Wayne Savage is the owner of Mid-Atlantic Litter Cleanup Service, a Washington-based public space litter-removal company. He participated as a volunteer in the Potomac River Watershed Cleanup in 2012 and 2013.






















Potomac sewage spill warning failed to reach D.C., Northern Virginia

By Wayne Savage


Utilities that draw drinking water from the Potomac River for Washington, D.C., and much of Northern Virginia received no official warning in mid-December as 3.5 million gallons of raw sewage spilled into the Monocacy River, a major Potomac tributary.

As public-works employees in Frederick, Md., scrambled to repair an electrical malfunction that crippled the city’s sewage-treatment plant on the evening of December 11, officials of the Maryland Department of the Environment placed urgent calls to the Rockville water-treatment plant and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the primary water utility for Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

MDE’s calls warned Rockville and WSSC of the spill, which started at 7 p.m. and continued until 3 a.m. the following day. Frederick’s sewage-treatment plant discharges wastewater into Carroll Creek, some 500 feet above its confluence with the Monocacy River.

But official notification of the December 11 spill never crossed state lines to reach water utilities downstream in Virginia and the District of Columbia, as called for by a longstanding early-warning plan devised by jurisdictions in the Potomac River basin.

Under the early-warning plan ─ which is voluntary and not mandated by federal law ─ MDE should have notified the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. The ICPRB, in turn, is tasked with spreading the alarm to downstream water utilities so they can take mitigating action, if necessary, in response to contamination events. ICPRB’s role includes running a computer model to determine the times that contamination is likely to reach downstream water-intake pipes.

Potomac River watershed map

The Potomac River watershed covers four states and the District of Columbia.

Among the communities left in the dark on December 11 was Leesburg, Va., some 30 miles downstream from Frederick and the closest to the spill.

“I don’t have any documentation in my file that we got notified,” said Larry Taylor, manager of Leesburg’s water-treatment plant. He said, however, his file contains a printout of a story from the Frederick News-Post website.

Tom Jacobus, general manager of the Washington Aqueduct, said he and his staff were unaware of the Frederick sewage spill until contacted for this report.  The Washington Aqueduct, a division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, supplies water for Washington, D.C., and Arlington County, Va.

Fairfax Water, which supplies water to a large swath of Northern Virginia, including Fairfax and Loudoun counties, also missed the warning.

“We do not have a record of being notified of that spill,” said Fairfax Water spokeswoman Jeanne Bailey. “I don’t believe we were aware of it.”


Multiple sewage pathogens

Raw sewage can contaminate water with bacteria, viruses, protozoa and parasitic worms that cause human disease, including “serious illnesses such as cholera, dysentery, infectious hepatitis, and gastroenteritis,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Sensitive populations ─ children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems ─ are at a higher risk of illness.”

“In a serious spill, sometimes the [water] utility will need to take measures to avoid contaminating their intakes or change their treatment process,” said Cherie Schultz, director for CO-OP operations at the Interstate  Commission on the Potomac River Basin.

The ICPRB has developed models that estimate the time of travel and concentration of contaminants that enter the Potomac River, Jacobus said by email.

“This provides utilities with needed information about a wastewater treatment plant overflow and gives warning so that water treatment plant managers can assess the potential effect of that overflow on the treatment system,” Jacobus said. “These managers may decide that it is prudent to add more chlorine to neutralize the bacteria that are over and above the normal river conditions.”

Jacobus and officials of other downstream water utilities, including Leesburg and Fairfax, said the December spill posed no danger to public health. According to these officials, the sewage was so diluted by the time it reached their intake pipes that it required no change in the routine treatment of raw water taken from the Potomac.


State agency alerted

Frederick officials alerted the Maryland Department of the Environment within an hour after the spill started. But according to multiple sources, the state agency did not pass the word to the ICPRB, as called for by the region’s early-warning plan.

A statement released by MDE confirmed the agency notified WSSC and Rockville ─ the two nearest downstream water utilities in Maryland ─ but not the ICPRB. The MDE said it is “taking steps to address the communications issue” and has strengthened its emergency response procedures by improving its internal communications and by “reminding our staff that under our response plan they should directly contact ICPRB as soon as possible after any spill in the Potomac area.”

Carlton Haywood, director for program operations at the ICPRB, said employees of his agency didn’t learn of the spill until they read a newspaper report on the morning of December 13. That was some 36 hours after the spill started ─ too late for the downstream water utilities serving Virginia and the District of Columbia to take remedial action, had it been necessary.

ICPRB’s computer model showed that the leading edge of the sewage spill would have taken 17 hours to reach Leesburg, about 10 miles downstream from the Monocacy’s confluence with the Potomac, arriving at noon on December 12, with the peak concentration coming at 4 p.m..

After passing water intakes that supply Fairfax Water, the WSSC, and Rockville, the leading edge of the spill would have reached the Washington Aqueduct’s intake at Great Falls at 7 p.m., with the peak coming at midnight, according to the computer model.

Dilution of the sewage spill was aided by a relatively high level of water in the Potomac. At noon on December 12, the river was flowing at 31,300 cubic feet per second, or about 234,000 gallons per second, as measured by the U.S. Geological Survey at Little Falls, 10 miles below Great Falls. That flow rate was more than twice the historic average recorded for December 12 by the USGS.

Noting the Potomac’s high flow, Haywood said that by the time bacteria from the Frederick spill “got down to the Washington-area utilities, the concentrations were likely down to roughly the same as background levels, more or less.”

Similar assurances came from the downstream water utilities.

“In the Potomac River with a dilution factor there shouldn’t have been any problem,” said Taylor, manager of the Leesburg water-treatment plant.

Bailey, the Fairfax Water spokeswoman, said that given the distance the sewage spill traveled, it would not have impacted her utility. Fairfax Water’s two intakes are near the border of Loudoun and Fairfax counties, some 40 miles downstream from Frederick.

“We don’t feel that spill would have had any impact on our water supply or any treatment changes would be necessary,” Bailey said.


Maryland utilities notified

Officials at both Rockville and WSSC said the Maryland Department of the Environment notified those two water utilities of the sewage spill at 9 p.m. on December 11. MDE’s warning calls, however, did not include the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin.

The WSSC found no need to raise chlorine levels in response to the spill, according to spokeswoman Lyn Riggins, who said the raw sewage “was diluted by billions of gallons of river water by the time it got to us.”

“We kept an extra eye out,” Riggins said, “but there was nothing out of the ordinary.”

Marylou Berg, communications manager for the Rockville city manager’s office, said that routine, around-the-clock testing showed no difference after the spill.

“We continually monitor the chlorine level leaving the plant … to get the water quality to the appropriate level,” Berg said. “The amount we needed to maintain the water quality didn’t have to go up.”

Berg described the sewage spill as “really not much of an event for us.”

“Certainly the river was contaminated by this extra sewage,” Jacobus said in an interview, “but the river is always contaminated.”  He said raw river water is assumed to be non-potable, and water-treatment plants are designed to make it potable according to EPA standards.

Based on the ICPRB’s computer model of the Frederick spill, Jacobus said there was no need to change the Washington Aqueduct’s treatment process because “the effect of the bacteria would have been incrementally negligible at the intake.” (The aqueduct’s Great Falls intake is some 50 miles south of Frederick.)

“We have a very sound bacterial-disinfection process that can handle what comes to us from the river,” Jacobus said.

Jacobus suggested that a chemical spill, especially petroleum, would be more problematic because water-treatment plants “were not fundamentally designed to handle” such contamination. In 1993, a ruptured pipeline sent 407,000 gallons of diesel fuel into Sugarland Run, a Potomac River tributary near Reston, Va., forcing Fairfax County to shut down its Potomac water-treatment plant for more than a week.


Federal law silent

on interstate warning

Frederick officials were required, as a condition of their sewage-treatment plant operating permit, to notify the Maryland Department of the Environment of the sewage spill. But federal law does not mandate that notification include the ICPRB, which would have warned downstream water utilities of the incident.

“What [utilities] are not obligated to do is report to other agencies in other states, so that is the gap that ICPRB is trying to fill,” said Haywood, echoing a slogan that appears prominently on the ICPRB website: “Watersheds Cross Political Boundaries. That’s Why We’re Here.”

The ICPRB, however, is a non-regulatory body, and participation in its early-warning system by the Maryland Department of the Environment is voluntary.

Jacobus said the breakdown in the chain of notification was the first he knew of in his 16 years with the Washington Aqueduct. He called it “a uniquely rare event in my experience.”


Wayne Savage is the owner of Mid-Atlantic Litter Cleanup Service. He drinks water every day that’s drawn from the Potomac River.


 For further reading:

City of Frederick timeline of sewage spill

Statement released by Maryland Department of the Environment

Statement released by Tom Jacobus, general manager of Washington Aqueduct  


Industry groups revamp effort to ‘defend’ plastic bags

Trade groups representing the plastics and chemical industries recently announced an expanded effort to “defend plastic bags and increase plastic film recycling.”

In a news release dated December 15, the Plastics Industry Trade Association, also known as SPI, noted that “efforts to ban or tax plastic bags” have become increasingly local. In response, Progressive Bag Affiliates, whose members include the nation’s largest plastic-bag manufacturers, has moved from the American Chemistry Council to SPI and been renamed the American Progressive Bag Alliance. Meanwhile, the chemistry council is introducing a new Flexible Film Recycling Group to promote expanded recycling.

This sector of our industry continues to face extraordinary challenges, predominantly at the local level – exactly where the SPI grassroots network can make an impact,” said William R. Carteaux, the president and CEO of SPI. “By aligning our approaches, SPI and ACC can better marshal and utilize our collective resources to defend this important sector and promote film recycling.”

More than 12,000 in-store collection points currently exist for recycling plastic film, according to the news release.

Ironically, the plastics trade association is based in the District of Columbia, where the city council enacted one of the nation’s first bag fees in 2009. One can only imagine the anguish of the plastics lobbyists when they run out to buy groceries and find themselves charged a nickel apiece for their defenseless plastic bags – rather like the paradox of an earlier era when the National Rifle Association was headquartered in D.C., which has some of the most restrictive firearms laws in the nation. (No doubt the NRA folks find the legal climate in Virginia, the current home of NRA headquarters, more conducive to packing heat. Were the plastics trade association to follow suit and decamp to Virginia, it would likewise find a warm welcome. No bag tax there!)


–Wayne Savage


  For further reading: SPI’s December 15 news release.  


Coming soon to the blog: A raw-sewage spill into the Potomac River tests the region’s early-warning system.