The Bulletin

A quarter of Virginia’s waste continues to come from out of state

By: - June 21, 2021 12:01 am

The Shoosmith landfill in Chesterfield in August 2020. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

A quarter of all solid waste received in Virginia in 2020 came from out of state, the annual waste management report from the Department of Environmental Quality released last week shows. 

Of the approximately 22.5 million tons of solid waste that facilities in the commonwealth handled during the calendar year, about 5.7 million tons came from other states. Maryland, at 2.4 million tons, was the biggest contributor, followed by New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. 

The proportion of Virginia’s overall waste stream that originates outside its borders has remained roughly consistent over the past decade, hovering around 25 percent. Out-of-state waste dipped into the 23 percent range in calendar years 2017 and 2018 and hit a high point, at more than 27 percent, in calendar year 2016. 

This year’s offering by other states marked a slight decrease — of just under 2 percent — compared to last year. 

Once in Virginia, where does the waste go? In 2020, 70 percent of it was landfilled, while almost 12 percent was incinerated and about 7 percent was recycled. The remainder was mostly mulched or composted. 

Statewide, more than 60 landfills remain in operation, accepting municipal solid waste and debris from construction and demolition. 

DEQ’s report shows the biggest by far, in terms of capacity, is the Atlantic Waste Disposal facility in Waverly. Other large operations include the Bethel landfill in Hampton, the Shoosmith landfill in Chesterfield, the King George landfill in the county of the same name and the Maplewood landfill in Amelia. All have a remaining permitted life of several decades. 

State law requires DEQ to issue a report on solid waste disposed in Virginia annually. In an agency release DEQ Director David Paylor called the report “an important tool for comprehensive management of solid wastes.” A separate recycling report is expected later this year.

Landfills, and particularly Virginia’s acceptance of out-of-state trash, has been a perennial political issue in the commonwealth since the 1990s, when the state ranked second in the nation as a receiver of other states’ refuse. 

More recently, lawmakers have focused their attention on decreasing plastic waste. Gov. Ralph Northam this spring issued an executive order banning state agencies and universities from using single-use plastics. 

Bills passed by the General Assembly and signed by Northam in 2021 included a ban on polystyrene food containers, to be phased in between 2023 and 2025, and a hotly contested bill classifying chemical recycling facilities as manufacturing rather than waste management. A 2020 law allowed local governments to begin levying a five-cent tax on plastic bags, an option most recently embraced by the city of Roanoke.  

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.