Fairfax County has announced a new strategic partnership with the City of Alexandria, Prince William County and Arlington County to recover and recycle glass. For years, residents have been putting their glass bottles and jars in curbside recycling bins for pickup weekly by refuse collectors but now we know that most recyclable glass in curbside bins has been going to the landfill instead. So, it is good to hear the county is tackling the problem of glass recycling.
Under the new program, residents are asked to bring their glass to recycling centers and place it in purple glass-only drop-off cans. Currently, there are 10 drop-off sites in Northern Virginia to serve more than 2 million residents scattered across 768 square miles. Clearly, this is inadequate. If the program is really going to work, purple cans must be ubiquitous throughout Northern Virginia. One can envision purple cans at every public library, every public school, every police station, every fire station, and every county and city government office.
I was curious what the carbon footprint is of this new program with 10 drop-off sites, and crunched some numbers. I live in Fairfax County which has two drop-off centers: the I-95 Landfill Complex and the I-66 Transfer Station. On a weekly basis, my household produces a small amount of trash but a lot of recyclables – mostly paper, cardboard, and glass – and we try to recycle as much as possible. We live in zip code 22309 about 13 miles from the I-95 Landfill Complex and 24 miles from the I-66 Transfer Station. We go to the I-95 Landfill Complex perhaps once every 5-10 years to recycle electronics and never visit the I-66 Transfer Station, so getting to one of them to recycle glass would need to be added to our weekly routine.
Using public transit would not increase the carbon footprint so I started there. Using Google Maps, I discovered there is no public transit to get me to the I-95 Landfill Complex but there is to the I-66 Transfer Station. Among the four routes offered, the quickest involves four bus and two subway transfers and takes three hours, one-way, including a 38-minute walk. So, it looks like public transit is not a good option for me unless I want to devote an entire day each week going round-trip to the drop-off site schlepping 1-2 shopping bags filled with recyclable glass.
By driving my own car, on a round-trip basis, it would take one hour to the I-95 Landfill Complex, or one and one-half hours to the I-66 Transfer Station. If I recycle my household’s glass on a weekly basis, I would spend 52 hours per year driving 1,352 miles to the I-95 Landfill Complex, or 78 hours per year driving 2,496 miles to the I-66 Transfer Station. According to GasBuddy, the average price per gallon of regular gasoline in Virginia currently is $2.57, so my weekly trips to a drop-off center would cost between $158 and $292, annually, assuming 22 miles per gallon.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says in its Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle fact sheet that a typical passenger vehicle emits 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year assuming fuel economy of 22 miles per gallon driving 11,500 miles per year. Entering information about my own vehicle into an online carbon footprint calculator, I discovered my car, on a weekly round-trip basis, would emit 0.91 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year going to the I-95 Landfill Complex, or 1.68 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year going to the I-66 Transfer Station.
In its Demographic Reports 2018, Fairfax County estimates it is home to 409,600 households. In comparison to mine, some households, undoubtedly, live closer to a drop-off center while others live further away. If you consider mine as average in distance, then the carbon footprint for weekly glass recycling by county residents might range from 372,736 to 688,128 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, assuming most households have vehicles and drivers, and are willing to spend time and money (for gasoline) taking their recyclable glass to a drop-off center.
The carbon footprint could be reduced dramatically if purple cans were ubiquitous throughout the county. This also might encourage more households to recycle glass because it no longer is onerous and expensive to do so. The carbon footprint could be reduced further if refuse collectors were required to go back to picking up recyclable glass separately from the already scheduled single-stream pickup of other recyclables. This not only would enable all households using refuse collection services to participate in glass recycling, it also should be the most cost effective as no additional collection efforts would be needed. Most households in the county already are paying for pickup of recyclables; let’s make it work.
As it stands now, it looks like there is little incentive to recycle glass.