Solid Waste and Recycling
Virginia's solid waste stream had decreased in recent years, in part because of recessionary forces. With the resumption of economic growth, the total amount of solid waste is again on the rise, but recycling rates are increasing as well. Although potential landfill space is available in Virginia, the transportation and disposal of solid waste remain long-term concerns.
Why is This Important?
Landfills are associated with pollution risks to soil, air and water; odors; and increased traffic from heavy trucks loaded with landfill-bound waste. Unless properly constructed, maintained and monitored over a long period of time, landfills can leak highly contaminated leachate into the groundwater and emit numerous and sometimes dangerous air pollutants.
The availability of properly constructed and maintained landfills is an important public policy issue. To protect the environment and public health, proposed landfills are subject to significant licensing requirements, including site and design review by the Department of Environmental Quality. Expanding landfill capacity requires substantial startup time. Landfill standards are set according to the level of environmental hazard.
One way to reduce the amount of solid waste accumulating in landfills is to recycle that waste, which has the added benefit of saving energy compared to producing the same material from scratch.
How is Virginia Doing?
Virginia's waste stream has generally been declining since a peak in 2004, and the severe 2007-2009 recession contributed even further to lower solid waste volumes. But with the resumption of economic growth, waste volumes have begun to increase again. In 2011, Virginia solid waste management facilities received and managed a little less than 15.2 million tons of solid waste. Other states sent an additional 5.6 million tons, bringing Virginia's solid waste total to more than 20.7 million tons.
Virginia's average base recycling rate -- now at 37 percent -- has been improving since 2008. Localities have been eligible since 2006 to receive up to five additional credits for solid waste reused, non-municipal solid waste recycled, recycling residues, and source reduction programs. When these credits are included, Virginia's average recycling rate in 2011 rose to 41.9 percent. The Central region again led the state in 2011 with a recycling rate of 50.6 percent, followed by the Northern region at 45.4 percent. The Southwest region (24.9%) had the lowest recycling rate in the state.
What Influences Waste and Recycling?
Reducing solid waste levels requires commitment from individuals, corporations, and the government. In the last few decades, greater emphasis has been placed on protecting the sustainability of natural resources, preventing contamination of the environment, and reducing excess garbage.
What is the State's Role?
States are limited in how much they can influence the amount of waste deposited in landfills. Under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Virginia cannot prevent the importation of waste from other states for deposit in commercial landfills within the state. One result is that waste imports have grown in recent years, as northeastern states have found the cost of transport and disposal in Virginia cheaper than landfill space on their own turf.
Localities are responsible for determining when and where new landfill capacity is needed. The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is responsible for regulating the management and disposal of that waste. DEQ determines whether the new landfill is properly built and monitored; inspects it to prevent unauthorized waste (esp. hazardous waste) from being added; sets requirements that must be met when the landfill is closed; and works with localities to promote and establish recycling programs.
What Can Citizens Do?
Individuals and groups are strongly encouraged to be active participants in resource management. Most municipalities in Virginia offer recycling programs; many even offer convenient curbside pick-up for residential waste. Numerous businesses promote recycling on-site as well. Many public schools teach students about the benefits of recycling and offer voluntary programs for collecting recyclable waste.
To learn more about recycling in Virginia and the state's efforts, please visit DEQ's recycling pages.
Individuals may also consider buying fewer pre-packaged foods and other items in favor of bulk goods and goods purchased directly from local producers; reducing the amount of catalog and bulk mail they receive; and advocating and using products that contain recycled materials and reduced packaging.
State rankings are ordered so that #1 is understood to be the best.
Data Definitions and Sources
Virginia Department of Environmental Quality:
Recycling: Several waste authorities (Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission, Southern Crater Region, and Virginia Peninsulas Public Service Authority) serve multi-county areas that fall into different regions within Virginia Performs. To resolve this problem, recycling data are assigned to whichever region contained the majority of the counties in the waste authority service region.
Recycling Rate with Credits: Virginia Rate adjusted for 5% maximum percentage allowed for credits to the base recycling rate calculated by a solid waste planning unit. A 2% reduction credit may be added to the calculated recycling rate for a documented source reduction program.
See the Data Sources and Updates Calendar for a detailed list of the data resources used for indicator measures on Virginia Performs.