Natural Resources

Solid Waste and Recycling

Virginia river falls in the autumn

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 has risen, but not to the levels seen in earlier years. Recycling rates have generally been increasing as well. And although potential new landfill space is available in Virginia, the movement 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?

Solid Waste Management in Virginia. See text for explanation.

Virginia's waste stream has dropped from peak volumes set in the mid-2000s. The severe 2007-2010 recession contributed to lower solid waste volumes -- but even with the resumption of economic growth, waste has generally remained just slightly above recession-era levels. In 2015, Virginia solid waste management facilities received and managed almost 15.3 million tons of solid waste, up from the 15.0 million tons processed the year before. Other states sent an additional 5.4 million tons (also up from 2014), bringing Virginia's solid waste total to 20.7 million tons.

Waste Generated per Capita in Virginia. See text for explanation.

On a per capita basis, Virginia's waste production has changed little since 2009, fluctuating between a low of 1.77 tons per person in 2010 to a high the following year of 1.87 tons. This is encouraging, as it shows that waste levels are holding steady even as the economy has fully recovered from the recession that initially lowered consumption (and therefore waste). In 2015, Virginians generated an average of 1.83 tons of waste per person.

In 2015 Virginia's average recycling participation rate was 44.2 percent, an increase from 42.5 percent the year before. Regional recycling rates went up -- sometimes markedly -- in most areas in 2015. The Richmond area continued to lead the state; after years of participation rates in the 50s, recycling rates there rose to nearly 63 percent in 2015, likely due to a broadened program in the Richmond area that began accepting several additional types of waste. The Roanoke (+11.2%) and Northern Shenandoah Valley (+8.3%) areas saw the biggest improvements in participation rates.

Generally speaking, more densely populated areas of the state tend to have higher recycling rates, in part because people living closely together makes the logistics of waste collection easier to establish and sustain. Although most Solid Waste Planning Units (SWPUs) have a mandatory recycling rate of at least 25%, those with populations greater than 100,000 account for about 85 percent of all the recyclables collected in the state.

Virginia Areas with Highest Recycling Rates
Area 2011
2012 2013 2014 2015
Bristol Area 35.0% 36.3% 36.3% NA NA
Fredericksburg Area 56.5% 55.9% 46.3% 43.6% 46.2%
Hampton Roads / Tidewater 44.6% 35.7% 33.5% 31.3% 33.7%
Lynchburg Area 38.8% 31.3% 38.9% 41.5% 40.1%
Northern Shenandoah Valley 39.1% 41.6% 40.4% 41.4% 49.7%
Northern Virginia 44.5% 47.3% 46.0% 45.4% 47.4%
Richmond Area 57.7% 57.4% 57.4% 57.5% 62.7%
Roanoke Area 42.5% 37.6% 35.4% 27.8% 39.0%
Source: Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, 2015 Annual Recycling Summary Report

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. Increasingly, public venues and events make recycling receptacles available as a matter of course, while some communities -- for example, the metro Richmond area -- are broadening the types of plastic and other trash that can be processed through their recycling programs.

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 grew, as northeastern states 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; monitors compliance with the state's mandatory recycling rate of 25 percent, 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 -- and recycling -- the catalog and bulk mail they receive; and advocating and using products that contain recycled materials and reduced packaging.

Page last modified March 23, 2017
Solid Waste Management in Virginia.

State rankings are ordered so that #1 is understood to be the best.

Data Definitions and Sources

Virginia Department of Environmental Quality:

Recycling: Beginning in 2013, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality required recycling reports from just 17 of the 71 Solid Waste Planning Units (SWPUs) in the state; these 17 have at least 100,000 residents. The recycling rate reported is 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.

At a Glance:
Solid Waste and Recycling in Virginia

Performance Trend: Trend is maintaining.
State Influence:  

With the resumption of economic growth, the amount of solid waste in Virginia has risen again, with over 20 million total tons processed in 2015, although waste levels are holding relatively steady. Regional recycling rates rose in most regions in 2015, with the Richmond area again the leader, reprocessing well over 60% of allowable solid waste.

Related Agency Measures
Programs & Initiatives
Recycle Everything else, too!

DEQ's Recycling and Litter Prevention Program distributes annual grants to localities for litter control and recycling, and enforces the state's mandated recycling rates for local governments and other waste management units. Many municipalities across the state also provide a range of recycling programs, events, and resources for their residents.

Recycle Your Electronics

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers a wealth of information on recycling, including its "ecycling" program to help consumers understand the importance of recycling old, outdated or broken electronic devices such as phones, computers, TVs -- and where and how to do it. Many retailers, such as Best Buy, now offer ecycling services on-location

All of these efforts are fully supported by Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which offers residents Virginia-centric information and sources. Regional efforts to consolidate recycling and disposal programs include Northern Virginia's (for both businesses and residents in the area).

Other resources for the general public:

Resources for large businesses or governments can be found at the Federal Electronics Challenge.

And don't forget the batteries . . . A number of services are available nationwide. Battery Solutions offers collection programs for corporations and governments and sells a home battery recycling kit.

Additional Information
Recycling Perks logo

Recycling Perks works with local business in several regions and localities in Virginia to offer rewards to residents who recycle. Participants get reminders when it's time to recycle in their neighborhood -- and earn points good toward discounts at local stores, restaurants, and services every time they do. Numerous businesses in the Hampton Roads region (including Chesapeake, Norfolk, Suffolk, and York) and the Central region (including Richmond, Ashland, and Colonial Heights) participate in the free Recycling Perks program.

There are also scores of other "green" sites that offer helpful resources, tips and background information on how to recycle consumer goods. Earth 911 and The Green Guide are just two.