Long lines of cars snaked around Baltimore Polytechnic Institute last Saturday during a one-day collection of household hazardous waste. Some 1,800 vehicles inched their way through the school's parking lot so the drivers could dispose of their cargo — solvents, paint thinner, pesticides and the like, materials that are too dangerous to pour down the drain or toss in the trash. It was slow going; many drivers had to wait in line for over an hour.
The Saturday slog was evidence both that Baltimore has plenty of household hazardous waste and that its system for collecting it needs improving.
Since there was no hazardous waste collection in 2010, some of these materials had been sitting in city basements for two years. This one-day event came to fruition largely because citizens requested it from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. The turnout was overwhelming, greater than city officials anticipated — thus the long lines.
There seems to be a pattern of underestimating the environmental interest of Baltimoreans. Recall the Saturday in December 2007 when the four locations distributing the city's new recycling containers were swamped. The weather was frigid, the delays were long, and the supply of $6 and $5 containers ran out, leaving some folks cold and empty-handed. A spokesman for then-Mayor Sheila Dixon characterized the large crowds of people clamoring for recycling containers as a "sign of progress." Nice try.
It should be easier to be green in Baltimore. It is in the surrounding counties. Residents of Howard County, for instance, drop off their hazardous wastes any Saturday from April to November at the Alpha Ridge Landfill. Baltimore County residents can deposit their household hazardous wastes in White Marsh at the Eastern Sanitary Landfill Solid Waste Management Facility, Mondays through Saturdays from April to November. The county also organizes once-a-year drop-off days at its Cockeysville and Halethorpe facilities, events that county officials say each draw about 1,000 cargo-carrying cars. Anne Arundel County has a rotating schedule of drop-off days for landfills in Glen Burnie, Sudley and Millersville.
Collecting household hazardous wastes is more complicated than collecting newspapers and bottles. Expertise is required. Governments hire private companies that specialize in classifying and safely disposing of the waste. Some materials, for instance, are incinerated at private facilities. That costs money. Howard County spends about $450,000 a year to dispose of household hazardous waste. Anne Arundel County, according to its website, spent close to $205,000, and Baltimore City officials estimate it cost about $100,000 for Saturday's one-day effort.
It is money well spent. Collecting household hazardous waste at a recycling center is less expensive than paying for the damage it could cause later if people dump the materials improperly and they enter streams, ground water and other parts of the environment.
Strapped for cash, Baltimore is looking around for sponsors who would pay for another hazardous waste collection day. Another idea being tossed around is charging a fee — pay as you dump — to users who drive through. That could raise funds but could have the unfortunate effect of discouraging folks of lesser means from properly disposing of their hazardous wastes. Moreover, collecting payments on site caused considerable delays during the recycling bin fiasco. Seeking contributions in advance from environmental groups and manufacturers of the most commonly disposed-of chemicals makes the most sense.
Residents can also take some steps at home to convert hazardous waste, such as cans of leftover latex paint, into routinely picked-up, trash. Latex paint can be solidified in the paint can by removing the lid, stirring in an absorbent material such as cat litter or sawdust, and placing the open can in the sunlight to dry. This should be done in a safe, well-ventilated area away from children and pets. The lid should be kept off the paint can so the trash collector can see that there is no liquid inside.
In Baltimore County residents have the option of carrying their leftover latex paint to White Marsh, where workers recycle it, sending large vessels of the blended paint out to area nonprofits. Another tactic encouraged by all the local jurisdictions is to avoid purchasing hazardous materials, or to buy them in small amounts.
But for the real "bad boys," such as insecticides, herbicides, solvents and furniture stripper, there is no at-home solution. The only option is taking them to a licensed household hazardous waste collection site, like the one set up at Poly last Saturday. By now, city officials should know that if they organize such an event, the crowds will come.