State aims for 'zero' waste, but goal is far off

Maryland plan for 'zero waste' faces challenges, especially in Baltimore

Trucks start lining up to dump their loads at Baltimore's Quarantine Road landfill before the gates open in the morning.

Throughout the day, trash-compactor trucks, dump trucks and tractor-trailers stream into the waste burial ground on Hawkins Point near the Anne Arundel County line. The vehicles take turns depositing steaming piles of incinerator ash, heaps of bagged household trash and a cornucopia of castoffs — couches, dishwashers, drywall, mattresses, storm windows, tires, even a large stuffed teddy bear with a small tear in one arm. Bulldozers churn back and forth, flattening and spreading out the mounds of debris, as sea gulls gorge on sour-smelling food scraps exposed in the process.

The throwaway culture on display at the 153-acre landfill illustrates the challenge that Baltimore and other Maryland communities face in coping with the mountains of waste generated by their residents, businesses and industries. While Marylanders recycle more than the average American, according to the state Department of the Environment, they also toss out more stuff, to the tune of more than six pounds per person each day. That figure is more likely a reflection of Marylanders' affluence than their wastefulness, state officials say.

In a bid to ease pollution problems associated with waste disposal, state officials recently released a "zero waste" plan calling for reducing, reusing and recycling nearly all the waste produced in Maryland by 2040. Landfills produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas that's contributing to climate change, they note, while polluted water leaching out of the waste mountains must be collected and treated. And though modern landfills have thick plastic liners to prevent groundwater contamination, leaks occur.

The state plan shoots for something short of zero, however — aiming to divert 85 percent of what's now being buried in landfills or burned in incinerators, and to recycle 80 percent of it by 2040.

"We'd love to zero it out, but zero is probably, quite frankly, impossible," said David Costello, deputy secretary of the environment, who notes that statewide, Marylanders generate more than 12 million tons of trash and waste annually.

The plan's top priority — and arguably its most ambitious — is to reduce the amount of waste at its source, getting consumers to buy only what they need and getting product manufacturers to cut down on unnecessary packaging. The plan notes that European countries and some Canadian provinces now require manufacturers to bear the waste disposal costs of their product packaging, but doesn't advocate that in Maryland — at least not yet.

Environmental activists said they are disappointed that the state plan doesn't go further in that regard.

"It seems like they spent a lot of time talking about managing the waste," said Julie Lawson, head of the Maryland Trash-Free Alliance, a group focused on reducing litter "That's not what zero waste is intended to be, and it doesn't solve the litter problem."

While the plan lists dozens of options, many are simply recommended for further study, and activists wonder how many will be acted upon in the administration of Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, who comes in focused on cutting state spending and rolling back rather than imposing new fees and requirements.

Activists likewise object to the plan's endorsement of burning waste to generate energy. Costello said the state plan puts a higher priority on waste reduction and recycling, but considers "energy recovery," as it's called, preferable environmentally to burying the waste in landfills. But activists point to studies showing that burning trash yields climate-altering greenhouse gases and other pollutants, and argue that continued incineration discourages recycling.

The plan does call for doubling recycling in Maryland — which by itself is a challenge, since the rate now averages 40 percent statewide. The task is even more daunting for Baltimore City, which recycles just 25 percent of its municipal waste, the lowest rate among all the state's largest communities.

Lawmakers have attempted to boost recycling statewide by raising the minimum mandated rate, and by requiring recycling in schools and in apartment and condominium complexes. With Baltimore lagging behind, the effort faces a test. The city has just a year to boost its recycling rate to 35 percent — the new minimum rate set by state lawmakers. The law says a building moratorium may be imposed in localities that don't meet their mandatory recycling goals — but that penalty has never been enforced.

City officials acknowledge the need to increase recycling and reduce the amount of waste being generated. But their own 10-year plan contains none of the ambitious numerical targets set by the state. Instead it proposes to work toward improving the efficiency of its waste collection and disposal, while urging residents and businesses to recycle more.

The only significant change the city is planning is a major expansion of the Quarantine Road landfill. By incorporating an old 52-acre industrial landfill next door, city officials say they'll add enough space to bury waste at current rates for another 25 years. The state recently held a public meeting on the proposal.

While expanding the landfill would seem to run counter to the spirit of the state's "zero-waste" plan, city officials say it would ensure the city's continued ability to dispose of its own wastes. They also note that the city burns more than a third of the trash it collects at the BRESCO waste-to-energy incinerator in South Baltimore, which helps to save room at the landfill.

Judging from the amount of paper, cardboard and plastic bottles deposited at the Quarantine Road landfill during a brief visit, there are still plenty of recyclables getting buried there. While about half the paper thrown out statewide is getting recycled, officials estimate, there are still nearly a million tons of it that get buried or burned annually. Nearly 700,000 tons of plastic are not being recycled statewide, either.

Robert Murrow, Baltimore's recycling coordinator, said the city plans to launch a public education campaign this year, sell more yellow recycling bins to households and start checking on recycling in the city's 350 apartment and condo complexes, which under state law was required to begin two months ago. The city has sold 25,000 recycling bins, charging $5 or $12 depending on their size, Murrow said. While the bin prices are below cost, they've only reached a fraction of the city's 200,000 households.

The city's recent foray into mechanized trash collection in two neighborhoods suggests giving the bins away could boost recycling significantly. More than 9,000 households in Belair-Edison and in the Mondawmin area were given huge new plastic trash bins on wheels a year ago, but they also got new yellow recycling bins for free. Murrow said officials are still evaluating the program but have noticed about a 30 percent increase in recyclables collected from those two neighborhoods.

Food scraps represent another large, relatively untapped opportunity to recycle, advocates say. Less than 10 percent of food waste being disposed of statewide is processed into garden compost, the state estimates.

While food composting has caught on in many West Coast communities, it's a relative rarity here. Private businesses composting food scraps have struggled, with the exception of one in Harford County. In the past two years, though, Howard and Prince George's counties have begun relatively small-scale composting of household, commercial and institutional food scraps at their landfills.

Howard has been collecting about seven tons of food scraps weekly from 5,000 households participating in its curbside collection pilot program, according to Karen Spicer, a county spokeswoman. It's processed at the county's Alpha Ridge landfill. The effort has produced about 1,200 cubic yards of compost for use in county landscaping, she said, and about $20,000 worth of compost-enriched topsoil has been sold in local stores.

In Prince George's, food waste, mixed with yard clippings, comes from curbside collection in two small communities, from a Whole Foods processing plant in the county and from the University of Maryland campus. The process is managed by the Maryland Environmental Service, with the finished product sold in garden stores as Leafgro.

"It's been a tremendous success," said Adam Ortiz, Prince George's County's environment director.

Prince George's has been driven to try composting and other new things because its landfill is expected to run out of space in just five years, Ortiz said, and community opposition makes expanding it or building a new one very difficult. The county has been forging partnerships with recycling businesses, he said, and is now seeking more proposals for boosting recycling and reducing waste generation, with the aim of getting closer to zero.

"I think it's within reach," Ortiz said, "but to get there we really have to be forward-thinking. We have to be willing to take some risks and try some new technologies and create a friendly atmosphere for the private sector. If people can find value in what we're throwing away, the goal is definitely within reach."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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