Recycling at the Smithsonian

The Smithsonian Castle
The Castle at the Smithsonian

In April, I had the opportunity to go to Washington D.C. for the National Low Income Housing Coalition Conference. We were in D.C. for five days. Two mostly occupied by travel, one day to ourselves, and two days in NLIHC workshops. The conference was very educational, informative, and interesting. As a board member for the Community Alliance of Tenants, it’s always nice to see how our actions are impacted by national and state policy.

La Promenade in L'Enfant Plaza, Washington, D....
L'Enfant Plaza and hotel, Washington, D.C. Image via Wikipedia

On our “free day”, we were able to play tourist. It’s been fifteen years since I’ve been to D.C. The last time was with Project Close-Up in 1995 while I was a junior in high school. I wanted to revisit some of the things I saw in 1995 and others I didn’t have a chance to see. Luckily, our hotel, L’Enfant Plaza, was just three blocks south of the Smithsonian block and the Mall. I wanted to walk around, take it all in, and explore. The Freer Gallery was on the top of my list, after lunch.

We lunched at the Castle Cafe inside the Smithsonian’s information Castle. We consumed an overpriced, fair-tasting, lunch filled with wraps, and yogurt. I was amazed at the variety of sustainable products for sale. We had choices of fair trade coffee and teas, organic yogurts and fruits, all available on or in compostable products.

The quandary came into play when I went to dispose of said eco items. There was a small recycling station, but nary the availability of the Capitol (which I was to find in three days). Offering compostable products is really important. But equally, or more, important is offering a place to put the green products other than the trash.

Compostable Glasses
Compostable serving-ware found at the Smithsonian and available throughout the Capitol buildings.
Smithsonian Recycling Station
This is the recycling station at the Smithsonian. Notice there is no space for compost.

When I think of the Smithsonian, History comes to mind. Preservation and the ideas of being a step ahead of the “average person” are all stereotypes I associate with the institution. I was very pleased to see such a wide sampling of eco things at our nations Capitol. There were spaces everywhere for depositing soda cans. Our nation’s government buildings emphasized organic foods, fair trade, shade grown, and all served in compostable wares. The Rayburn House Office Building was the only building that offered a space in which to deposit those wares. Closing the loop on all things is probably the most important concept of sustainability.

It’s great to offer recycling. It’s important to recycle. But, if we fail to purchase recycled products, where does the recycled content go? There would be no market for it. Two things are needed to make recycling work. One, a system in which to collect the thing. Two, a market for the thing. When I lived in Lansing, Michigan in 2001, the city refused to take any colored glass because there was no local market for it. Sure, glass is plentiful, it’s made of sand. It’s also super easy to recycle and has almost no net-energy use when it’s recycled. Of anything to recycle, glass is one of the most important, but there was no market so no easy way to get it into the system.

Recycling will routinely be taken to a trash facility if there are no buyers to take the plastics. On one hand, you can argue you need the demand first, so the Smithsonian isn’t entirely to blame. But, I was really surprised when the Rayburn House Office Building offered a space for compost. Both facilities, within a mile of each other, are in D.C. Presumably both facilities have their waste picked up by the same service and taken to the same place.

I do not know what kind of composting services the D.C. area has. There may be a small facility that can only take what the Capitol buildings provide. But, when compostable products are made available for use without a place to put them when they are done being used (outside of the trash), the availability of said product amounts to green washing. That is, it is wasteful and imprudent to offer compostable products if there is no compost to put the product when one is done using it.

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