The state of waste in Baltimore is at a breaking point, but amid the systemic failures, neighbors and grassroots organizations are enacting hyperlocal solutions. Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration, the Department of Public Works and the City Council should take note of the composting work Baltimoreans are doing in our neighborhoods to make the places we live more healthful, pleasant and sustainable. And then they should take sweeping, but realistic, action to reform how waste and compost are handled. It’s time for Baltimore public officials to catch up with neighborhood efforts and implement composting on a citywide scale.
Currently, 25% of the waste stream to the South Baltimore trash incinerator is food waste. The incinerator has long been unpopular due to valid concerns about the air pollution and resultant health risk it creates in majority Black and working class neighborhoods such as Cherry Hill and Curtis Bay. Since Baltimore City has extended its contract with Wheelabrator to keep the incinerator running, it is imperative that the city work to minimize waste streams to the incinerator. Food waste is a prime target.
In July of 2021, the Baltimore City Department of Public Works launched a residential food scrap drop-off pilot program. This program was marketed as Baltimore’s commitment to tackling food waste. However, the program design was inaccessible to people without access to transportation or unfamiliar with composting. It ultimately only benefits and targets a small, select population, many of whom had already been composting. Furthermore, the program only targeted residential food waste and excluded businesses, which generate a large share of the city’s food waste. In order to truly demonstrate a commitment to reducing food waste, the city must create a more comprehensive compost program that offers pick-up options and includes businesses.
Municipal composting in the city would provide great benefits to the people, public health and environment of Baltimore. Composting diverts food waste, which is the primary source of methane at landfill sites. It also improves food security, replaces synthetic chemical fertilizers and reduces climate-crisis-accelerating emissions. Many cities across the country have already implemented municipal composting programs at a municipal scale. In Baltimore, meanwhile, communities across the city have demonstrated that they are ready to do their part and are excited about reducing food waste.
There are dozens of examples of small groups of neighbors and grassroots organizations taking waste matters into their own hands across Baltimore. We are developing an interactive map directory for community use; it’s available online here: https://bit.ly/3oUOnfN.
Several community-based solutions have taken root in South Baltimore, where environmental racism is particularly stark. The Black Yield Institute’s programs include food production, distribution and research, political education, a Black land and food sovereignty network, and support for the creation of a cooperatively owned, community-controlled food co-op in Cherry Hill.
In East and Southeast Baltimore, several neighborhood associations have initiated composting projects in recent years. Patterson Park Neighborhood Association’s composting bins are located at a visible intersection and are open for food scrap drop off all day, every day, demonstrating that dense rowhouse neighborhoods are some of Baltimore’s greenest.
In Northwest Baltimore, the Park Heights Urban Farm is another example of a holistic community-driven response. It provides a “thriving marketplace, community shared agriculture, and urban farmer training resource institute,” according to its Instagram account, once again demonstrating that composting is part of the solution.
In 2021, Maryland’s legislature passed House Bill 264, stating that beginning in January 2023, commercial entities that generate more than 2 tons of food scraps and are located within 30 miles of an industrial compost center will be required to separate and divert food waste from landfills and incinerators. The current nearest industrial compost center for Baltimore is in Prince George’s County. If the city government of Baltimore were to invest in an industrial compost center specifically for the city, this could dramatically reduce commercial food waste in the area and increase composting capacity.
The South Baltimore Community Land Trust, alongside several community organizations have long advocated for a community-led just transition to zero waste. It is time for Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration, the Department of Public Works and the City Council to align their work with these efforts by creating a citywide composting program.
— Owen Silverman Andrews and Vennela Avula, Baltimore