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Achieving Zero Waste in Fairfax County, VA

Fairfax County, Virginia

Featured image for the project, Achieving Zero Waste in Fairfax County, VA

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Northern Virginia, Fairfax County borders both the City of Alexandria and Arlington County and forms part of the suburban ring of Washington, D.C. The county is predominantly suburban in character, with several high-density urban areas.  In 2019, the population was estimated at 1,147,532, making it the Commonwealth’s most populous jurisdiction, with around 13% of Virginia’s population. One in seven Northern Virginia households have severe housing problems. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s county health rankings identifies “islands of disadvantage” where residents, disproportionately people of color, face poverty, poor education, unaffordable housing, and lack of health insurance.

Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions (FACS) is a non-profit working towards local solutions to the climate crisis ( From its start in a single congregation in 2012, FACS has grown to more than 80 congregations across Fairfax and Northern Virginia, including Catholic, Hindu, Muslim, mainline and evangelical Protestant, Jewish, Sikh, Friends, Unitarian Universalist, and Buddhists congregations, as well as people unaffiliated with specific faith traditions. FACS organizes advocacy teams that meet regularly with their Supervisor, School Board member, and state legislators on environmental justice issues.

FACS advocacy teams have raised concerns about air pollution and health effects of trash incineration and have met with community neighborhood association groups, school parent teacher associations, environmental groups, local and state elected officials, and County staff to discuss the issue. FACS has also sponsored public forums, focusing on incineration and overall waste management. In our recently published toolkit, 2021 Fairfax to Zero: Advocating for a just, sustainable future, FACS details 10 ways to reduce the County’s waste stream. The first priority for this project will be to engage with a scientist to further understand the County’s waste streams and their associated environmental impacts.


Project Impacts: Beneficiaries include all of the County’s residents. By understanding the waste streams, policies and advocacy efforts can be designed for maximum impact and help get the County closer to the goal of zero waste. Eliminating waste will preserve resources needed for future generations, reduce the health risks from incineration, and help mitigate global climate change through a reduction of greenhouse gases.


Project Outputs: Outputs include analysis of the waste streams, quantification of the environmental impacts of current MSW practices, and recommendations on the most effective areas to prioritize local policy and advocacy efforts (e.g. will increasing recycling or composting lead to a greater reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases?). All outputs should be specific to Fairfax county.


Timeline: Work will begin as soon as possible (Feb 2021). The county will complete its Countywide Energy and Climate Action Plan in June 2021.  Waste management strategies included in the plan could be informed by this project’s initial assessments, and our results could be integrated into implementation of the plan. Exact length of project will be determined by the scientific partner, but we anticipate a 12 month duration – 6 months on waste stream survey and analysis, 3 months on developing recommendations, and 3 months communicating results.


Supplemental Background

Northern Virginians generated 2.7 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) in 2018, of which 35% was recycled, 11% was yard waste, and 54% was incinerated (31%) or landfilled (23%).   Of Fairfax’s 1.1 million tons of MSW, over 600,000 tons were incinerated at a waste to energy (WTE) plant.  Fairfax currently uses single-stream recycling where all types of recyclable waste are collected in one bin and sorted at a specialized facility. A substantial portion (29%) of recycled waste is considered “contaminated” and is incinerated.  Single use plastic bags are ubiquitous and only 1 percent are recycled.  Over 60 percent of the litter collected in the county is single use plastic. Fairfax has an exceedingly small curbside organic waste recycling pilot.  As much as a quarter of MSW that is trucked to the WTE facility for incineration is organic waste which could be separated and composted.  The WTE facility processes around 3,000 tons of solid waste per day, generates 80 megawatts of electricity and emits over 1 million tons of CO2eq annually.   The county has MSW management plans, but no strategy for dramatically reducing the amount of MSW. FACS is pressing the county to commit to a zero-waste goal, increase recycling, expand organic waste recycling, divert reusable waste, and drastically cutting residual MSW that is burned or landfilled.

About the Community

Dr. Eric Goplerud is the Chairperson Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions and will serve as the main point of contact on the project. Philip Banes, FACS Board member and managing director of the Smart Cities Council, will support Eric on this project.

As the community leads, Goplerud and Bane will work with TEX scientists to scope project, secure research site cooperation, maintain liaison with Fairfax county staff and elected officials, and develop a strategy and materials for communicating project results.

Project Team

Community Leads

Dr. Eric Goperlund – Chairperson, Faith Alliance for Climate solutions

Philip Barnes – FACS Board Member; Managing Director, Smart Cities Council

(Photos and biographies coming soon!)


Community Scientist

Information coming soon

Community Science Fellow


Lisa Watkins is a plastic pollution researcher and PhD Candidate in environmental & biological engineering at Cornell University. She studies plastic in rivers and on city streets, focused on how scientists and community members can better measure it. Her background also includes work on flooding prevention, riparian buffers, and using GIS to map at-risk populations living near oil & gas wells. In addition, Lisa is an avid hiker and biker and is founder of the Clemson ReCyclery, a community building and teaching-oriented bike shop. Lisa holds a M.S. in environmental & biological engineering from Cornell University and a B.S. in environmental engineering from Clemson University. 



Maddie Foster-Martinez is a postdoctoral research associate with the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of New Orleans. She studies wetland processes through field measurements and modeling and works to connect cutting-edge science with restoration designs and land management decisions. She is currently working on multiple coastal protection projects, including the Louisiana Coastal Master Plan, and teaching a virtual oceanography school in Ghana. As a New Orleans native, her passion for all things Louisiana drives her work and play. Maddie holds a BE from the Cooper Union and an MS and PhD from UC Berkeley.