Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

It’s been four months since the county peppily unveiled demanding new complications for recycling.

“Arlington County is asking residents to stop placing glass in their blue recycling carts,” said folks in the solid waste office. “A significant drop in the market value of glass recyclables means it is no longer economically or environmentally sustainable for the county to collect them via single-stream recycling.”

Using new authority granted the county manager by the board on April 25, our green planners suggested that do-gooders such as I buy fewer products in glass containers. We should reuse more existing glass containers and — least conveniently — we should deliver glass to either of two recycling centers (one at N. Quincy St. and Washington Blvd., the other at 2700 S. Taylor St.)

The policy took effect Aug. 1. To keep things sorted, I dutifully purchased a new recycling can to separate glass beer bottles and discarded pickle jars from the bin on my back porch now reserved for newsprint and cardboard. I heroically placed the county’s “no glass” reminder decals on my old bin. I selflessly set up a new bag to store the plastic grocery bags the stores will now take back. Then I tossed an array of glass containers in boxes and drove them to the recycling site behind the Washington-Liberty High School baseball field.

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Not much fun. Shards of glass lay on the lot’s ground, perhaps the result of the too-tiny access holes in the large steel dumpsters. The bottles make an upsetting shattering noise when they hit bottom. It took me a while to insert them all, spawning evil thoughts that my willingness to go to such lengths for greenness may eventually fade.

So I queried Arlington’s Department of Environmental Services to vent. Spokeswoman Katie O’Brien explained that “glass is one of the heaviest items in Arlington’s residential recycling stream, making up about 22 percent of the total. It has a negative market value in this region because of lack of nearby glass processing facilities and the difficulty with separating it from other recyclables,” she said.

Might citizens get tired of this new command to separate? “We understand this may not be convenient for everyone,” O’Brien replied. “We also ask that people incorporate trips to the drop-off center into their normal routine of grocery shopping or other activities. We are exploring adding additional glass-only drop off sites throughout the county.”

Arlington is not alone in this new demand. Prince William County banned glass from recycle carts in March. Other areas have similar problems disposing of it, an exception being Montgomery County with its dual-stream approach, as NPR reported, that preserves the purity of discarded glass and keeps it marketable to end users.

Nationally, the Glass Packaging Institute continues to push recycling. “Glass bottles and jars….can be recycled endlessly without any loss in purity or quality,” it says. “The container and fiberglass industries collectively purchase 3.35 million tons of recycled glass annually, which is remelted and repurposed for use in production of new containers and fiberglass products.”

Arlington does allow an escape hatch for the annoyed. “For those who are unable to drop off their glass, we ask that they place it in their black trash carts for pickup,” O’Brien told me. “If any of these variables change in the future, we will reexamine the policy.”

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Arlington shows up in the newly opened American Civil War Museum in Richmond.

On display is a bedsheet on which a hospitalized Confederate soldier in July 1861 sketched routes to the First Battle of Bull Run. Clearly labeled are “Arlington Heights,” the Potomac River, Alexandria (the street grid of Old Town), Fairfax and Centreville.

Most odd is the marking for a 27-mile “race course” depicting stick-figure human runners and horsemen. The map’s accuracy was vouched for by Gen. P.T. Beauregard.

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