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'Ambitious' zero-waste plan draws fire

Burning issue: Activists hit Maryland zero-waste plan for embracing trash incineration

With Marylanders throwing away far more trash per person than the average American, the O'Malley administration released a long-range plan Monday to virtually eliminate placing waste in state landfills in the next 25 years. The plan is drawing mixed reaction, however, as environmentalists criticize the blueprint's embrace of burning debris to generate energy.

State officials say that curtailing placing waste in landfills can save communities and taxpayers money, conserve energy and natural resources, and reduce pollution, including the release of climate-warming greenhouse gases.

Marylanders have more than doubled their recycling rates in the past two decades, the plan notes, now diverting about 45 percent of what once was thrown away. However, the state's residents still discard more than half their waste, with most of that going to landfills, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

In a statement accompanying the plan's release, Gov. Martin O'Malley called it "an ambitious policy framework to create green jobs and business opportunities while virtually doing away with the inefficient waste disposal practices that threaten our future."

The plan produced by the environment department lays out nearly 60 options for achieving "zero waste" by 2040, which in reality means diverting 85 percent of what gets buried in landfills now.

It sets as its top priority a series of reforms in the way products are designed and consumed so there's less waste generated in the first place. It also proposes measures to increase recycling, including vastly expanded composting of kitchen-table food scraps, reuse of treated wastewater, and volume-based, "pay-as-you-throw" trash collection fees designed to give residents a financial incentive to reduce their discards. Finally, the plan calls for burning waste that can't be prevented or recycled to generate energy.

A public forum on the zero-waste plan is to be held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Baltimore headquarters of the state Department of the Environment, 1800 Washington Blvd. A draft plan released last spring drew more than 115 written comments and prompted state officials to hold three meetings to review it over the summer.

Execution of the proposals in the plan would come through legislation, regulations and voluntary incentives, among other methods.

The Maryland Public Interest Research Group released a statement calling the final plan "a big step in the right direction," including its proposals for expanded recycling. One of the options drawing particular praise would promote reuse of drink bottles and other beverage containers by levying a refundable deposit on them when they're sold. Similar "bottle bills" have been proposed and killed in Annapolis by opposition from retailers and beverage manufacturers.

Emily Scarr, the group's director, criticized the plan, though, for including the burning of trash to generate energy.

"Incinerators are expensive," she said, "and they discourage waste reduction and recycling because the business model requires a constant flow of waste, which works directly against efforts to reduce, reuse, recycle, and compost."

She argued that zero waste can be reached solely by reducing what's discarded, reusing as much as possible and recycling the rest.

"This is not a Zero Waste Plan by any stretch of the imagination,'' said Caroline Eader, a Frederick resident who's fought a proposed waste-to-energy incinerator in her county.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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