Dear PoPville – Is it Normal for Recycling in Multi-Unit Apartment Buildings to be Mixed?

Photo by PoPville flickr user Mr. T in DC

Dear PoPville,

Can you provide any information on recycling for multi-unit apartment buildings? I live in a unit with more than 30 apartments near New Hampshire Ave and Georgia Ave. Our building has separate containers for recyclable materials. Yet I have noticed that the trash removal trucks dump the recyclable materials (cans, tin/aluminum,glass, newspapers, etc.) in with the trash components? Do this practice make any sense? Are these materials then sorted out at some final processing destination? Any words of advice would be most appreciated.

25 Comment

  • This happens at my multi-unit building as well. Curious to know if anyone has an answer.

  • I used to work at an office building that did this; apparently they took it to a place that separated the trash from the recyclables. (I suspect a lot of white paper was ruined in the process, though — not a good thing to mix paper with food trash, bits of liquid, etc.)

    It sounded dubious to me and I had to wonder if there were kickbacks involved, but apparently such sorting places do exist.

  • I’m quite certain that means that the recycling is being trashed. Recyclers really need to have material that’s clean of food and other contaminants for the material to be worth processing and then reselling. DC has single stream recycling…but that doesn’t mean it’s single stream with the trash too! It’s possible that the building contracts with a hauler who has one truck with two compartments, though, and things look mixed but are not in fact getting dumped together. Check that out–and if they’re being mixed in together, it’s a violation of city law that requires recycling for commercial and multi-unit buildings, and the building owner should be inspected and fined. for details on the requirements.

  • Buildings of 4 or more units contract trash/recycling services out to private companies. Many recycling facilities, both public and private, are now single stream, meaning everything is co-mingled and then separated (usually by mechanical means) later.

    • pretty sure this is true, because i once took some bulk trash items to the Ft Totten Transfer station behind CUA (, and may have seen this separation in action.

      it was kinda wild, you drive your car into this smelly hangar with pigeons flying around everywhere, and park, and there were multiple piles of trash inside. there were a couple of dudes with brooms who direct you where to put stuff, and all the paper trash i brought they said to put it into certain recycle piles…

      now, whether private trash companies drive into this hangar, dump their load, and the employees start separating, i can’t say…

      there was also a fine layer of greasy sludge on the floor of the hangar. my shoes smelled so bad that i had to pull over and wipe them off in some grass as soon as i pulled out of the station :\

      • I’ve spent a fair amount of time at Fort Totten, and they have two giant piles, one for “wet” garbage on the north end of the tipping floor, and one for comingled recyclables on the south side of the floor.

        If the hauler at your building is throwing garbage and recyclables together in a single truck, then they are just tipping it at the wet garbage pile, and it most likely goes to either a landfill or to a facility in Fairfax that incinerates it with a plasma technology that produces some energy (about 1.5% of what PEPCO uses I believe). The recycling pile is tipped into trucks and hauled to Maryland where a division of Waste Management sorts it into single streams and tries to create a marketable product from the waste.

        Others have said it, and I can confirm that most recyclables in a mixed stream have lower value than the cost of the recycling infrastructure required to handle them, so we actually pay more to handle recycling. Metals are valuable, but in a comingled stream, there is a lot of effort required to get the non-ferrous metals out. These economics don’t apply to good single stream operations, so like white office paper from a downtown law firm that isn’t mixed with other stuff is actually very valuable, and companies compete to haul that stuff away and keep the single stream from being contaminated (which is why you see big bins with a paper-sized slot and a padlock on them so no one can toss the old pizza boxes inside).

        The company doing your tipping is likely charging your condo association a premium for handling your recycling, and then not performing to the specs of your contract, or to city requirements. You should get your condo board to audit them, which is not hard to do, you could just call ahead to see when they are tipping at Fort Totten, and get one of the staff to guide you and see what they dump out of their truck, and in which pile they put it. Failing that, you could ask to see their receipts, or for photographic proof that they are doing the job you are paying for.

  • This is a good question as I’ve noticed this happening at my building too. For all of our peace-of-mind, I hope someone has an answer!

  • I have always suspected that the private recycling firms that handle these contracts are not really processing all of the eligible recyclables, but I hope I’m wrong. The inability of people in DC to recycle the correct stuff and not mix in non-recyclables doesn’t make things easier either.

    • Sidenote: I bet this all somehow can be traced back to Mayor Grey’s 2010 campaign improprieties

    • This is my suspicion as well. I’m the treasurer for my condo and we pay a couple hundred bucks extra per month for recycling. Everything just gets dumped into a single truck.

      I’m pretty sure we’re getting duped, but my fellow condo board members refuse to consider doing away with the recycling “budget” and having everyon throw all of their trash into the garbage.

      • Annonny, under D.C. law, your condo building doesn’t have that choice; see Kavakado’s post above.

        I think (not sure) that the private recycling companies make money from the recyclables they pick up, not just from the fees they get from apartment buildings, etc. If so, they’d have a vested interest in actually taking the recyclables where they’re supposed to go.

  • Here’s the deal: recycling is really expensive. Actually more expensive than it is to jsut throw stuff away- even when you consider cost savings associated with recycling plastic/paper/whatever into new goods. (Penn & Teller did a great show on this) However, the nanny state city requires commercial buildings (and apartments) to buy recycling service. End result: it all goes to trash.

    • That show was so full of misinformation, half truths and spin. Bullsh*t was a good choice of title for that episode. Unfortunately, the BS was coming from them.

  • If you’re really that concerned about it, take it up with building management. Larger apartment buildings typically have contracts with private waste handlers (like WM, Tenleytown Trash, etc) and there are stipulations in the contracts that require them to sort at a facility.

    My impression is that they’re too cheap to run two trucks out, so they just dump it all in one truck and sort it out later (believe it or not, Dirty Jobs had to teach me that these places exist and people do the sorting mostly).

  • newsflash – recycling is a lie sold to you to assuage your guilt about consumption. not helpful to the environment, not cost effective.

    • If I remember correctly, this doesn’t apply to aluminum recycling — it’s cheaper to recycle aluminum than it is to mine bauxite.

      • You are both correct. Metal is the only thing worth recycling. The rest just make us feel better.

        • ugh….is that true? I always feel all warm and fuzzy when I go the extra mile to find a recycling bin for my water bottles.

          • It is not true. The costs of dumping solid waste are vast and not fully studied. Local landfills are full, so trash is trucked (and sometimes trained) to less densely populated states. This makes it actually quite expensive to throw things away, but it also means lots of diesel is consumed to take trash from your curb to the waste transfer station and then to Arkansas. Those truck’s petroleum-based tires and the asphalt beneath them are ground down into dust that and pollutes both the air and the local water. At the destination, valleys or old quarries are filled up and then mounded over by equipment that compacts it so tight, there is no air for decomposition. Depending on the condition of the landfill’s liner, chemicals and pollutants can seep into the water table. Methane from materials that began to rot in transit is captured as much as possible and burned off in flares to prevent explosions.

            As such, it is imperative to reduce the amount of waste generated per capita, but it is difficult to provide enough incentive to do so. If we were directly charged for our waste at rates that covered all of the real costs, illegal dumping rates would soar. So, instead, the costs are partially recovered as a surcharge on the property owner’s tax bill and the rest is just part of government spending covered by other forms of taxes. Unless we live in a place where we have to burn our own trash, none of us has any meaningful feedback about the amount of waste we are generating. It just keeps going away, so we make more. We had a brief reality check during Snowmegeddon when the city missed a couple pickups, but memories of this faded as the snow melted. That was the snow’s fault, not ours, right?

          • Not sure how what you wrote is relevant to the question of whether recycling makes environmental or economic sense.

            You clearly despise consumption, and would like for us to consume more, which I guess is a noble position to take.

            However the fact remains that household recycling is inefficient, leads to another set of trucks driving around our cities collecting tiny amounts of recycling, and generally does not generate anything useful, except in the case of aluminum and steel. Recycling glass amounts to saving SAND (the raw ingredient it is made from). Paper and plastic take massive amounts of energy and chemicals to recycle.

  • Most waste management companies will pick up comingled and cardboard together. However the city requires that it is seperated before this so that they can keep track of the recycling rates. It’s a stupid system.

  • I moved from a place that allows you to mix all your recycling together to a large apartment complex that requires you to separate the glass from the plastic and paper, and requires that the cardboard be brought directly to the dumpster by the loading dock. Call me a lazy bum but I much prefer the system I had before!

  • Note that the OP is asking about recyclables being (apparently) mixed in _with trash_, not about recyclables being commingled (i.e., the glass, plastic, newspaper, white paper, etc. all mixed in with another) vs. separated by type of material.

  • I have a vague memory of the City Paper having done a big article about this a number of years back (when they still had reporters there who did investigations). If the recyclables themselves are co-mingled, that’s fine because they can be separated. But if they’re thrown into a trash truck, they end up at the landfill.

    And yes, multi-unit and commercial buildings do have to hire someone to pick up trash and recyclables. The city won’t do it.

  • There are garbage trucks with two compartments. Don’t assume the recyclables and garbage is commingled when put into a single truck.

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