Baltimore launches plan to get to ‘zero waste,’ starting with closure of city trash incinerator

A coalition of environmental and community groups and half a dozen Baltimore City Council members on Saturday launched a plan under which the city would strive to one day virtually eliminate waste, and, they say, create jobs and improve the community in the process.

The plan includes straightforward proposals such as distributing large recycling bins and compost containers citywide and paying local residents a living wage to collect the material, but also a broader set of ideas that don’t directly relate to household trash. They include plans to salvage construction and demolition materials and promote community adoption and ownership of vacant lots and buildings.


“We see momentum growing for big change in Baltimore,” said Meleny Thomas, a community organizer with United Workers in South Baltimore.

At least initially, though, the groups’ focus is on eliminating the destination for most of the city’s waste — the Wheelabrator Baltimore trash incinerator near Russell Street and Interstate 95. The same activists pushed the council to adopt a clean air ordinance last year that the incinerator’s owners said would be impossible to comply with.


The new plan calls for the city to cut its ties with Wheelabrator once its contract to deliver its trash to the incinerator expires in 2021.

“I wish we could close Wheelabrator tomorrow,” councilman Ed Reisinger told a crowded auditorium at the University of Maryland School of Social Work on Saturday. “We support this plan. We’re going to move it.”

Wheelabrator officials said they, too, want to see waste reduced and are supporting efforts to promote recycling and reuse through a campaign called We Can Bmore.

“Achieving zero waste is a laudable goal,” they said in a statement. “It is important to recognize that experts around the globe agree that achieving zero waste is a long-term objective that will require considerable behavioral change on the part of consumers and significant differences in the way products are manufactured and packaged.”

Wheelabrator officials have also said that burning trash at the facility is better for the environment than trucking it to landfills, which produce large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. The facility also generates electricity and steam used to heat downtown buildings; without it, the company argues, demand for fossil fuels would rise. The company is suing the city to stop the clean air ordinance.

The incinerator is also Baltimore’s chief industrial source of air pollution, including nitrogen oxide, lead and mercury, according to Environmental Protection Agency data.

The zero waste plan, developed by consultant Gary Liss, principal of Zero Waste Associates, stems from a non-binding resolution the city passed in 2017 to explore a zero waste strategy. While the city works on its own solid waste master plan, groups including the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and a coalition called the Fair Development Roundtable hired Liss, who has worked with two dozen other localities across the country on zero-waste plans, to develop one for Baltimore.

Among the efforts it calls for:

  • “Mission-based” recycling, which includes outreach to residents to reduce contamination by food, plastic film and other materials in recycling, and local sale of recyclable materials to be used in communities in need.
  • Annual spending of $20 million in bonds to fund “deconstruction” — rather than demolition — of 1,500 homes a year. Instead of sending construction waste to landfills, the plan proposes salvaging bricks, doors, windows and lumber.
  • Creating a $1 vacant lot program, allowing nonprofits and community groups to take over land often treated as dumping sites and instead use it beneficially for communities.
  • Establishing resource recovery centers around the city where residents and haulers can drop off reusable materials.

Liss said the overarching principle behind zero-waste planning is conservation of all resources, meaning both responsible production and consumption of goods, reuse and recovery of materials, and no discharges to air land or water.

“It’s not just about trash,” he said. “This is about your future.”

On the City Council, the plan has the support of at least the half a dozen members who attended Saturday’s event: Council President Brandon Scott (who is running for mayor), Vice President Sharon Middleton, and members Reisinger, Mary Pat Clarke, Kristerfer Burnett and Shannon Sneed (who is running for council president).

Scott said the plan fits with efforts to promote equity across the city, since the communities dealing with incinerator pollution and illegal dumping are the same ones affected by lead paint poisoning and other intractable problems.

The discussion comes at a fraught time for the recycling industry. Recycling has become more challenging since China in 2018 stopped buying much of the recyclable material the U.S. used to send overseas, largely because of poor recycling habits by Americans. In some parts of the country, that has turned profitable recycling programs into new expenditures for local governments.

In Baltimore County, officials recently acknowledged it hasn’t recycled glass materials since 2013 because of logistical and financial concerns.


Proponents of the Baltimore plan said the aim is to help the planet, but also communities that are eager for investment and cleanup. Shashawnda Campbell, of the South Baltimore Community Land Trust, said the plan is especially important as so many of the city’s neighborhoods get what she called undeserved criticism for dirty streets and alleys. They are the product of illegal dumping and unfair evictions, and the plan would help residents keep them clean, she said.

“They’re telling us we don’t care about our communities,” Campbell said. “That’s not true.”