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The District clears its basements, and its conscience.

Penance is fluorescent, here at the fall installment of the District’s biannual roundup of hazardous household garbage. On this sunny Saturday morning, Nov. 2, orange-vested workers guide drivers through and around lines of orange cones, toward stacks and stacks of orange boxes. By the end of the day, 925 cars will have passed through the parking lot of the Carter Barron Ampitheatre in Northwest, bearing 37.5 tons of the worn-out, useless, and potentially toxic leavings of everyday life.

Cecilia Buckley, a disposal worker wearing a white hazmat suit and black sunglasses, marvels at the bounty she’s unloading. “It’s carloads and carloads of paint—old paint—and there’s motor oil and gas,” she says. “I don’t know what they’re doing.”

What they’re doing, it seems, is buying way, way too much paint. A car pulls up, and Buckley scurries over the trunk, pulling a paint-splattered plastic rolling cart. Ten or so paint cans later, she sends Gene Meehan of Georgetown on his way. “We painted the whole house,” Meehan says. “I had about 30 or 40 cans. We’re high paint users.”

The cart goes to an assembly line, where a team of workers grabs each can and stirs the paint to remove any solid chunks. “After they pour the stuff into drums, the material will be sent to a fuels-blending facility,” explains Marc Kodrowski, the operations manager for Care Environmental Corp., the New Jersey firm that the District contracts to dispose of its household hazards. “Pesticides get incinerated. Any kind of acids or bases get neutralized. Pretty much everything gets processed. Nothing gets put into a landfill.”

About 200 feet away, two flatbed trucks are slowly filling up with dusty televisions, computer monitors, and CPUs. Reclining against a tailgate, Scott Wilson says Subtractions, his computer- and electronics-recycling firm, has corralled about 60 monitors by noon despite charging between $5 and $24 for disposal.

There’s silver to be mined in the computers’ hard drives, gold in the circuit boards. The surcharge, Wilson says, is the price consumers have to pay for extracting them in an ecologically sound fashion. “We don’t export anything to Taiwan or China or Vietnam or Korea,” he explains, “because what they do is, they just break it apart with hammers out on hillsides. They literally build a fire, and throw the circuit boards in a fire, and burn them.”

Brian Baker of Takoma, D.C., for one, says he’s only slightly perturbed about the cash outlay and is glad to be rid of two old monitors that sat in his basement for “five or six years.” “I had two of them, and one of them was broken, and I didn’t know which one was which,” Baker says. “It was just the easiest thing to do. I figured they’ll figure out which one works and they’ll end up doing something with it that’s probably decent.”

Not everything is redeemable, says Care Environmental employee Dominick Szabo, taking a break from hauling paint. “We find things that people have been storing in their back yards for probably years, with spider webs and leaves all over it,” Szabo says. “The weirdest thing I saw today was some guy who thought his contractor had relieved himself into one of those 5-gallon barrels. He actually brought that in. I thought that was pretty disgusting.” CP