It’s not every day that you find a basic math error has been on the books for a decade and a half, but chalk it up to the Maryland Department of the Environment. One can only imagine the egg (and coffee grounds and maybe stale bread crusts) on the faces over at MDE headquarters with this week’s report by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project that showed the agency has badly miscalculated greenhouse gas emissions from landfills by a factor of four since 2006. The numbers were cleaned up quickly on the department’s website. The underlying problem revealed by the report won’t be so easily wiped away.
The real villain here isn’t poor math, it’s methane. That’s the main constituent of natural gas, and it’s formed by both natural and biological processes. With landfills, it’s all about the latter. The gradual breakdown or anaerobic (oxygen-free) digestion of organic matter produces the flammable gas as well as carbon dioxide. In the context of climate change, the methane is the more worrisome and destructive component. As noted in the EIP report, Maryland’s landfills are now the state’s biggest source of methane releases into the atmosphere outdistancing even the natural gas industry.
There are some relatively easy short-term fixes. They begin by imposing tougher standards on landfills, both open and closed. That means not just monitoring how much methane such facilities produce but actually installing collection systems so that the gas is captured before it becomes a problem. It can even be used as an energy source. About half of Maryland’s 40 landfills currently have such capacity but, as the report also notes, only four of the landfills with gas collection or control systems meet “any government standards to ensure that they work.” It would also, of course, require that local governments not circumvent these rules by burning more of their solid waste in incinerators like Wheelabrator Baltimore, a major air polluter.
It also brings us back to recycling. With plant and food waste that means composting, Gardeners know the process well. You take all the organic matter in your household from dead leaves to food scraps and tiny bacteria gradually transform it into “black gold,” nutrient-rich soil. It can be done in the backyard or it can be collected and processed on an industrial scale. It reduces the waste stream, cuts methane emissions, improves soil and even conserves water (a product of compost’s water-retaining capacity).
Alas, Maryland’s track record in composting is not terribly impressive. Nor, frankly, is it for much of the nation. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. produces nearly 300 million tons of municipal solid waste each year of which just 25 million tons are composted (much of it leaves and grass clippings). A few locations such as San Francisco have done wonders. That city composts 255,500 tons of organic material each year, In comparison, the rest of the country landfills or incinerates over 50 million tons of compostable waste, according to a U.S. PIRG study. Maryland has just two publicly-owned food composting facilities — in Howard and Prince George’s counties.
There have been efforts. Baltimoreans can, for example, drop off food scraps at the farmer’s market (no meat, dairy, oil or paper products, please) at 32nd Street on Saturdays or under the Jones Falls on Sundays thanks to the Food Matters Program. But such voluntary efforts have their limits. Ultimately, it’s going to require central collection and processing of far more of these compostable materials. And the effort needs to begin by creating facilities that can handle the load. Again, as the Environmental Integrity Project observes, a recently-passed law mandating greater composting by large food producers does no good if there are not facilities to handle their contributions.
People aren’t necessarily all that familiar with composting. Some jurisdictions ban backyard food scrap composting altogether because it might attract pests. But given that about one-quarter of all residential waste is regarded as compostable, some public education is in order. Maryland is less likely to meet its toughening standards for reduced greenhouse gas emissions without a fundamental shift in the solid waste stream. And we should not have to need to remind people the consequences of unchecked climate change, not in a vulnerable coastal state where worsening storms and rising tides put so many lives, homes and livelihoods at risk.
The Department of the Environment caught its mistake. Will we catch ours? It requires not just upgrading landfills but keeping organic material out of them. And teaching people how best to accomplish that chore.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.