Baltimore County officials expect their only active landfill will become inoperable within the decade — sooner than previously estimated — and the only way to expand the facility without wiping out scores of homes is to build upward.
A work group has been meeting since last year to recommend changes to the county’s long-term solid waste strategy. Several options were laid out in the group’s September report, including a vertical expansion of the Eastern Sanitary Landfill in White Marsh.
Expanding vertically could extend the life of the landfill by 11 to 48 years, but it comes with drawbacks.
The work group recommends the county consider spending $750,000 in the coming years to study and plan the expansion, estimated to cost between $63 million and $162 million to build. Fourteen out of 17 work group members agreed the option should be a priority for the county.
The site has grown “a couple of hundred feet in height” in the last four decades, said Stephen Simmons with the Virginia-based solid waste consulting firm Gershman, Brickner & Bratton. The work group did not recommend building a new landfill site elsewhere.
“It’s not going to be tucked in behind some place,” Simmons said. “It’s going to be a very visible, prominent feature in the landscape forever.”
The 375-acre landfill was built in the 1980s and includes two transfer stations and recycling drop-off. It has been penalized in the past been for long-standing water pollution and solid waste violations but is now up to code. When it was built, the expected life span of a landfill was around 30 years.
Based on the landfill’s 2020 tonnage report, the Maryland Department of the Environment said the facility will reach capacity in 2027. About 3.1 million more tons can be disposed there before it is considered inoperable, according to the county.
Last year, county spokesman Sean Naron said 455,000 tons of trash were tossed at the landfill, which accepts only residential waste.
County officials didn’t anticipate the landfill’s momentum toward inoperability. As recently as 2016, they claimed the landfill’s life would extend to 2052.
“There is more than ample assurance,” officials wrote in a 2018 report, “that the County has adequate disposal capacity through 2028 and beyond.”
Building up isn’t an ideal solution for residents of the adjacent waterfront community Bowerman-Loreley Beach, who have lamented living near the landfill since its construction.
The smell wafts over their homes when the wind blows, said Dorothy Hinnant, vice president of the Bowerman-Loreley Beach Community Association.
But Hinnant, who regularly attends monthly community meetings held by the county’s landfill proprietors, said they “bend over backward” to try to assuage community concerns.
“They have to go somewhere,” Hinnant said. “I’m just sorry it’s in our community.”
Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, whose district includes the landfill and surrounding neighborhoods, did not respond to requests for comment.
Expanding the landfill upward also would produce more greenhouse gases for a trash heap that in 2017 ranked fourth among Maryland landfills for emitting the largest amount of the planet-warming gases, according to the state environment agency.
“I think [vertical expansion is] better than creating a new landfill and it’s better than building an incinerator,” said Shane Robinson, director of Trash Free Maryland, an advocacy group for policies to reduce garbage, who sat on the work group. “I don’t know that there’s anything else they can do right now.”
But alternatives to expanding the landfill also come with environmental downsides.
The work group recommended another solution to extend the landfill’s life: paying trash haulers, at a cost of $60 per ton, to divert 215,000 tons of trash annually from the landfill to other locations. The county could begin hauling trash as soon as the current budget year, which ends July 1.
That’s expected to cost the county $14 million a year by 2026, but could prolong the landfill’s life by up to nine years while the county made long-term plans, Simmons said.
But that option does nothing to mitigate greenhouses gases that would be produced by vehicles hauling the trash away, according to consultants — a potential problem for county officials given that the environment is a core issue for County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., and zero-waste strategies are expected to be prioritized in decision-making.
Baltimore County contracts with Waste Management Inc. and Republic Services to divert commercial trash from Eastern Sanitary to out-of-county disposal sites. The same could be done for residential waste to preserve capacity, said D’Andrea Walker, acting director of the Department of Public Works.
Another possibility is to burn more trash.
The county recently began a new contract with Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Co, or BRESCO — a private trash incinerator in the city that is Baltimore’s largest single source of air pollution — to divert at least 215,000 tons of trash from the landfill to the incinerator annually through 2026.
Neighborhood groups have opposed the incinerator, arguing the pollution negatively affects the health of residents.
Walker said the county is “not interested in disposing of more trash at BRESCO than what we’re required to.”
Baltimore County also is seeking to improve its sustainability, reducing the total amount of trash created.
The work group recommended some other strategies to preserve capacity at Eastern Sanitary, such as banning plastic bags for yard waste because, when mixed, the material is thrown in the landfill instead of being composted. The plastic bag ban for yard waste begins in April.
The group also recommended establishing a mixed-waste processing facility that would divert organic materials and food waste from the landfill and instead turn them into compost. The county would have to build such a facility, which could cost between $100 million and $250 million, according to the work group.
But those efforts “might not make huge difference on the life span of a given landfill,” said Robinson with Trash Free Maryland. “Its real effect would be to keep [trash] out of streams and waterways.”
“If we’re gonna get ahead of this problem…,” Robinson said, “we’re gonna have to do a lot more than just work around the edges.”
Baltimore County in 2019 produced the highest volume of solid waste out of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions — nearly 2 million tons, according to MDE. And even though the county in 2015 voluntarily set an annual recycling rate goal of 45%, it has never achieved it. The recycling rate has been declining since 2017 and was 32.1% in 2019.
The Baltimore County Council ultimately controls the county’s purse strings and would have to sign off on funding to study and expand the landfill.
But taxpayers may foot the bill with new fees to sustain the Department of Public Works’ Bureau of Solid Waste Management and fund expanded solid waste services and infrastructure projects.
The work group, as its highest priority, recommended the county look into setting up an enterprise fund through user fees charged to residents and businesses — a potential incentive for residents to practice “aggressive waste reduction actions” if a service rate was determined by the volume of trash a resident is disposing, according to the report.
The work group could not determine how much money the bureau would need to operate. It recommended $50,000 to study the feasibility of a user-funded program.