After being composted and sent to landfills in recent years, Congress' trash is now bound for a new final destination.
The Architect of the Capitol this morning announced that up to 90 percent of the Capitol Complex's nonrecyclable solid waste would be sent to local waste-to-energy facilities.
That means about 5,300 tons of Congress' trash will be shipped each year to local high-temperature incinerators and used to fuel generators that put electricity back on the grid.
"This is a response to the need for us to be more energy-efficient, more environmentally sensitive, more economical," said Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Administration Committee, which oversees the AOC along with the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.
Lungren said the effort had originally been planned just for the House side of the Capitol, but it earned support from Senate leaders in recent months.
"EPA and several others have said that this kind of energy recovery is among the cheapest and most efficient there is. This is one of the woefully underutilized technologies in America. And if we can give a boost to a technology that is underutilized, that's an added benefit."
There are 86 waste-to-energy facilities in the United States that have the capacity of creating 2,700 megawatts, according to the Energy Recovery Council, a trade group. About 7 percent of U.S. trash goes to waste-energy production on an annual basis, while 60 percent goes to landfills and the rest gets recycled, the council said.
One of the biggest roadblocks to the expansion of waste-to-energy efforts in the United States is that it is often more economical to send waste to landfills. But House Administration officials said the contract that the Architect of the Capitol was able to put in place with Urban Service Systems Corp. would save about $60,000 over its old contract to landfill its garbage.
There are three waste-to-energy plants in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, including a large facility in Lorton, Va., that can process about 3,000 tons of trash a day. Another plant is in the midst of getting a permit in Frederick, Md. And there is a plant in Baltimore with another in the works.
But even as waste-to-energy continues to expand, some environmentalists have expressed concerns over greenhouse gas emissions, the sustainability of the plants and whether or not they inhibit recycling efforts.
Count Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) of the House Administration Committee among the skeptics.
"It's the wrong thing to do," Lofgren said. "There are actually better ways" to dispose of Congress' waste, she said.
Sparring over Styrofoam
In 2009 and 2010, the House composted its waste, thanks to the Green the Capitol program initiated by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
But Lungren canceled the chamber's composting program in January, citing the high cost of stocking the cafeteria with corn-based utensils and lugging the waste to an on-site pulper. The entire process saved the carbon footprint equivalent of one car annually, with a price tag of $475,000.
Lungren's reintroduction of Styrofoam to the cafeteria did not sit well with Democrats. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) circulated a letter in March citing studies that listed the main ingredient -- polystyrene -- as a potential carcinogen. More than 100 Democrats signed it.
Then, in July, Democrats Jim Moran of Virginia and Peter Welch of Vermont tried to attach a rider to the legislative branch appropriations bill that would ban polystyrene from the cafeteria. It failed by a wide margin.
The AOC's new contract sets Congress on a different path, sending its waste to plants that will burn it to produce energy. Supporters of waste-to-energy plants say the technology cuts down on landfill methane emissions.
"Every time I pick up a Styrofoam cup, I wonder about what message is being sent," Lofgren said. But, she added, "we won't be looking at that until Democrats set the agenda."