Apply now to join our next cohort of Community Science Fellows and Community Leads!

Achieving Zero Waste in Fairfax County, VA

Fairfax County, Virginia

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

Image courtesy of the Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions (FACS)



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.

Local nonprofit Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions (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.


Project Description

This project aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Fairfax County linked to municipal solid waste. Using the County’s Zero Waste plan as a guide, project scientist Dr. Dora López de Alonzo will identify interventions of greatest impact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The relative impact of these interventions will be assessed by a future scientist, who will provide supporting statistics and best practices to FACS. FACS will then oversee a communication strategy tailored to the recommendations in order to advocate effectively for their adoption in the county.

Project Impacts: Beneficiaries include all County 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 and current County intervention strategies, quantification of the environmental impacts of current MSW practices and potential interventions, 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?). To complement technical recommendations, a communication strategy will be designed by a partnering social scientist. All outputs should be specific to Fairfax county.

Timeline: Initial scientist match and scoping completed summer 2021. The county will complete its Countywide Energy and Climate Action Plan in August 2021. Initial recommendations and assessment based on the plan expected in Fall 2021. Future scientist match and communication strategies to be completed by Winter 2021. 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.

About the Community

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.


Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions and American Bar Association Section of Environment, Energy & Resources

Supplementing this project work, FACS acquired pro-bono legal support through the ABA-SEER/Thriving Earth Exchange partnership to develop a legal brief on the use of public rights away for the installation of solar or other renewable energy. The purpose of the brief is to provide guidance for public and private entities.

The legal brief will examine the legal and regulatory environment for installing and maintaining solar or other renewable energy facilities on Virginia state and Fairfax county roadway rights of way, and utility rights of way such as oil and gas pipelines and high voltage utility lines.

Foundational questions are (1) what entity owns the rights of way and (2) what entity can allow or deny renewable energy installation.

If renewable energy can be installed, what entities are permitted to own the installations?  For example, rights of way under high voltage lines may be owned by the electric utility?   Might that ownership preclude entities other than the utility from constructing and owning solar installations.

Are there pre-existing deed, covenant or zoning restrictions that would prohibit or inhibit solar installations?   For example, might there be county zoning rules that would not allow installation of solar on rights of way.

Can independent third parties, including Sub S corporations, construct, own and maintain solar fields in rights of way?

These questions are currently being investigated with this projects ABA-SEER partners.


All updates for this project

Project Team

Community Lead

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

Dr. Eric Goplerud is a clinical psychologist, and Vice President and Senior Fellow at NORC at the University of Chicago. A longtime member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax, Eric has been involved in interfaith social justice efforts to end homelessness in Fairfax County and developing local solutions to climate change. His career and his advocacy stem from a common motivation: to bring people together to solve problems that most severely impact people who are poor, disadvantaged and vulnerable.


Community Scientist

Dr. Dora López de Alonzo – Principal Engineer, MITRE

Dora Lopez de Alonzo is a Principal Engineer at MITRE. She has 20 years of experiences in energy and sustainability. Her professional background includes work with academia, private sector, Government, and non-profits. In addition, Dora is the founder of Latinoamerica Renovable, a consulting company dedicated to creating awareness of renewable energies in Latin America. Dora holds a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Universidad Centroamericana and a PhD in chemical engineering from Clemson University, where she also completed post-doctoral work.


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.

Collaborating Organization(s)

This project is supported by funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.