The Baltimore metropolitan area generates about 3 million tons of solid waste each year. Roughly half of it goes into landfills. At that rate, more than 80 percent of the existing landfill capacity in the region will be depleted within 15 years. Carroll's two dumps would fill up around 2007.
Few would argue that the landfill situation has reached a crisis point -- yet. Local elected leaders nonetheless have seemed content to coast on well-meaning words until a calamity looms.
For more than a decade, top officials of the metropolitan jurisdictions -- Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties -- have discussed taking a regional approach to waste disposal. A consensus has emerged to spread facilities around the map so both the pain and the gains would be apportioned. One jurisdiction could host a trash-to-energy incinerator, say, while another could take a composting plant. Sharing the burden in this way makes more sense each passing year, as landfill space keeps shrinking and disposal costs keep climbing.
However, the six local governments and the Baltimore Metropolitan Council -- the non-profit corporation that oversees the subdivisions' regional efforts -- have done little more with their waste strategy than talk about it.
As one area disposal expert says, government officials will put into action a regional plan only when they have been scared into the realization that handling their trash problems individually will prove far more expensive than they can afford.
To play this waiting game is dangerous. Officials must move beyond generalities to specifics and then begin convincing their constituents of the wisdom of a broad, farsighted program. This could be a tall order in Carroll, where regionalism has been slow to be embraced. But local officials who had considered building a waste-to-energy incinerator hereabouts might be taken off the hook if the owners of Baltimore's Pulaski Highway aging waste plant carry out their proposal to replace it with a regional incinerator. That does not mean Carroll County will be excused from any metropolitan effort. County officials and citizens must look beyond parochial interests and recognize that regional waste disposal is not only unavoidable but also the most practical and cost-efficient approach in the long run.