A trashy story

Three lobbyists recently rose after eating lunch in the Longworth cafeteria, when one said to the other, “Hey, have you seen all the different bins to put your trash in? You have to make sure you get the right one. They’ve got one for bottles, one for food, one for your trash …”

The cynic in the group then chimed in: “What’s it matter? They take it all to the same place. The separation thing is just for show.”

Actually, it’s a widely repeated urban legend that the discarded food, wrappings and containers from Hill cafeterias end up in a single landfill. Since Dec. 15, 2007, more than 115 tons of mixed solid waste has been sent to two composting facilities instead of a landfill.

But few on Capitol Hill know about this change, which has helped the House reduce by 30 percent the cost of dumping waste from House offices and cafeterias. Each trip saves the House money, since the landfills charge more to dump waste than do the composts.

The change is a part of the Greening the Capitol initiative launched by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), which is quickly turning House cafeterias into vastly different eateries.

Utensils are now made from corn, while to-go containers are made from sugarcane. Even the food has improved dramatically, which logically means that less food gets thrown away.

Less, but not none. House cafeterias still have tons of garbage to get rid of.

Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) said he has no idea what happens to the cafeteria garbage.

“I’d be surprised if many of my colleagues do,” he said. “Though I think most of us are aware that there is some initiative to make the Capitol greener, I don’t think many of us are aware of exactly what all those initiatives are.”

Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) also said he has no idea what happens to the trash, but assured us we need not be concerned with his waste contribution.

“I finish everything I get [when I eat at the cafeteria] and I use my own utensils, so I don’t add too much waste.”

Some lawmakers are at least aware of the impact the project is having.

“I’m really glad to see the House catching on to the wave of the future of sustainable living,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), one of the House’s leading environmental advocates. “We need to lead by example.”

Still, details of the program remain a mystery to many.

“I don’t know,” said Rep. David Davis (R-Tenn.) when asked how and where the waste is disposed of under the new program. “I’ve never really looked into it, because I eat over there so infrequently.”

Blumenauer doesn’t eat in the cafeterias often either, though his guess as to the fate of the waste strikes closer to the mark.

“From what I understand, you can crumple it up and eat it for breakfast,” Blumenauer said of the utensils and the to-go containers.

Not exactly — although there is a sort of cycle-of-life aspect to the “greener” cafeteria endeavor.

The waste is broken up into three main components that all go to different places. Recyclable bottles and cans go to a recycling center, while leftover compostable food and biodegradable containers and cutlery end up in composts. All other items, such as candy wrappers and potato chip bags, are still dumped in a Virginia landfill.

This is a big change, since previously everything went to the landfill.

The Architect of the Capitol’s greening work started with the recycling of bottles and cans.

Now, under Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard’s rule, the House composts the majority of its waste in the cafeterias and congressional offices.

Key to this latter innovation is a giant trash compactor known as a pulper that rests adjacent to Longworth’s loading dock along the south side of the building.

The waste finds its way to the pulper every afternoon as it is collected from House offices and cafeterias one by one. To save time, waste collectors throw all the bags into a giant bin on wheels, which they cart with them as they go.

Employees have been known to spot these bins as they roll down the hallways overflowing with grey bags packed with non-compostable trash to be sent to the landfill, orange bags filled with recyclable bottles and cans, and light-green biodegradable bags containing everything from newspapers to coffee cups to be sent to the composting facilities.

Seeing all these bags together in one bin contributes to the myth that all of the garbage ends up in one landfill. In reality, as Perry Plumart, the program’s deputy director, explains, the different-colored bags get dropped off at different locations.

Beard and Plumart’s fondness for the pulper makes them seem like the loving owners of a pet, which, if it were the case, would have to be about the size of a small panda bear.

The pulper grinds through the biodegradable materials like a panda gnawing through bamboo. Trash is shoved into the mouth of the metal contraption as water is added to ease the crushing process. The water is then sucked out and into the sewage system, leaving a confetti-like substance (or as one staffer put it, something that looks like the product of a night’s heavy drinking), which is spit into bins that haulers take away every morning five days a week.

This process reduces 10 32-gallon cans of trash into one and cuts the weight of the waste by 70 percent, which in turn allows the dump truck to haul more waste away for less money.
Trucks then bring the waste to one of two locations where it decomposes over a period of several weeks.

The first, at Beltsville, Md., is situated in the middle of south Maryland’s countryside amidst 4,000 acres of U.S. Department of Agriculture research land. The composted material ends up fertilizing this land, where cows graze and farmers till vegetables.

Not too far away lies the actual composting site, which visitors will smell before they see, although a swarm of buzzards hovering incessantly above their five-star meal gives it away.

The second center, known as Chesterfield Farms, is almost three times bigger than the USDA site. Here, compostable materials from the House are blended into soil over a period of 75 days. The soil is then returned to the Hill to be used as fertilizer in Capitol gardens.

Not everything is compostable, and workers need to go through the bags to make sure only biodegradable trash is sent through it. This can lead to buried treasures.

Plumart, looking for likely contaminants such as yogurt containers, suddenly pulled a perfectly good cowboy hat from his bag of trash.

In the same bag, he found a slew of lobbying packets, perhaps left by the three men from Longworth extending the urban myth that all of the cafeteria garbage ends up in the same landfill.