Up to 80 percent of the trash we incinerate could be recycled or diverted, improving the quality of the air we breathe, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, and reducing litter. Read Colleen’s op-ed in the Baltimore Sun about what we can do to change that, right now, at the local level.
The current recycling rate among Baltimore County residents stands at just 16 percent. Much of our waste that could be recycled, reused, composted, or diverted ends up in landfills or incinerators. Across Baltimore County, our residents take home prepared foods, drinks and other items in polystyrene containers, for example, over 90 percent of which ends up in landfills. These foam containers are voluminous, taking up crucial space in our landfills, and when they break down, can enter the food chain, harming fish, birds and other wildlife. When foam containers are not sent to landfills, they get incinerated, which releases styrene gas, a known carcinogen.
As a result, the Eastern Sanitary Landfill, the only landfill in Baltimore available to accept more trash, is over 51 percent full and Baltimore County sends 215 tons of solid waste to the Wheelaborator Baltimore incinerator in Baltimore City. Incineration of this waste produces electricity and steam power for more than 250 Baltimore businesses and 40,000 homes and produces less potent greenhouse gases compared to landfills—but also exacts an annual $55 million toll on public health, as nearby communities exposed to smoke from the incinerator suffer a 20 percent increased risk of lung cancer, among other health effects.
The good news is that Baltimore County is in its final year of the 2008-2018 Solid Waste Management Plan and the Department of Public Works is developing the new one for 2019-2028. This is the time we can make a difference for the future.
What can we do?
Ban polysterene foam containers in Baltimore County.
A movement to end the use of polystyrene foam containers is sweeping the nation. McDonald’s is dropping foam packaging from its products by the end of 2018. Dunkin’ Donuts has pledged to end its use of styrofoam coffee cups by 2020. Jamba Juice replaced its insulated styrofoam cups with an eco-friendly alternative in 2013.
Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and Baltimore City have all banned polystyrene foam containers. They join many other cities and municipalities across the nation, including New York, NY; Seattle, WA; Washington DC; Miami Beach, FL; Freeport, ME; Portland, ME; Nantucket, MA; Minneapolis, MN; Portland, OR; Los Angeles, CA; and San Francisco, CA, among others.
It’s time for Baltimore County to implement a polystyrene ban–or “foam-free” law–as well.
Many alternatives to polystyrene containers are cheaper than polystyrene. They’re also reusable and compostable. Plasticware to-go containers can live on in family homes, while compostable ones can be made into mulch and planting soil for residential or business landscaping.
Since any effort to enforce a countywide change in our usual to-go habits would take time, as in Baltimore City and elsewhere, Baltimore County’s polystyrene ban should have a phase-in period, giving businesses ample time to find new suppliers. By participating in a polystyrene ban, Baltimore County businesses can burnish their green credentials. Websites such as The Maryland Office of Tourism is just one venue that actively promotes businesses that have achieved green certification.
Implement a beverage-container deposit program in Baltimore County.
Of the 4.8 billion beverage containers sold in Maryland every year, only 25 percent are recycled. Five-cent rebates at reverse vending machines as well as recycling centers would likely encourage more people to recycle these containers. In Michigan, deposit programs have resulted in bottle recycling rate of nearly 100 percent. These programs also reduce litter, as a 2011 study on a proposed beverage container deposit program in Maryland documented.
So far, bills to introduce deposit programs have failed in the Maryland General Assembly. By implementing its own deposit program, Baltimore County can become a leader in this area, while at the same time taking care to mitigate against any possible impact on single-stream recycling revenues.
Encourage businesses to reduce plastic straw use.
Over seven percent of the trash collected by volunteers around the world consists of plastic straws and stirrers. Because of their shape, they’re particularly dangerous for marine life. Sea turtles have been found with plastic straws stuck up their noses! That’s why cities such as Seattle and others are banning plastic straws, and companies from McDonald’s to Bon Appetit are starting to phase them out as well. While some people require straws for health reasons, most of us do not. Baltimore County should work to encourage our coffee shop owners and restaurants to provide straws by request only or provide lids that do not require a straw (think Starbucks strawless Nitro Cold Brew lid).
Implement a Compost Collection program in Baltimore County.
As councilwoman, Colleen will work to implement a compost collection program such as the one in Howard County, which collects both food and yard waste at curb-side. Composting our food and yard waste diverts material out of landfills, reduces transportation costs, and produces valuable end products such as compost and mulch that improve the health and water retention of our soil.
Launch education programs about effective recycling and its role in reducing waste.
Residents need to be better educated about which materials to recycle and where. For example, while the three County recycling drop-offs accept many common types of plastic—SOLO cups; common screw-top bottles and jars; prescription bottles; and rigid plastics such as milk crates and coolers—they cannot recycle dry-cleaning or plastic grocery bags, plastic utensils or polystyrene. In addition, many recycling centers use automated sorting processes that are jammed up by plastic bags. Both the City and County recommend taking grocery and dry-cleaning bags to grocery stores for recycling. These are issues that residents need to be aware of to ensure our recycling efforts are as effective as possible.
Improve access to hazardous-waste disposal.
The county should make it easier for residents to dispose of hazardous materials, so that they don’t inadvertently end up in landfills. Opening more days and venues for hazardous-material disposal, including weekend hours, is an important first step.
Consider diverting county waste to places where methane emissions are captured.
The county should consider diverting more of its waste to the Eastern Sanitary Landfill, which has installed a methane-to-electricity capture system to reduce its emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
For more information
- Abell Foundation. 2011 Impact Analysis of a Beverage Container Deposit Program in Maryland. https://efc.umd.edu/assets/2011impactanalybevcontmd.pdf
- Baltimore County Government. Bureau of Solid Waste Management. Solid Waste Management. Towson: Baltimore County, 2018. Web. 8 May 2018. <https://www.baltimorecountymd.gov>.
- “Power struggle: A Maryland paper mill burns a polluting sludge called black liquor. The state calls it green energy.” The Baltimore Sun. 7 December 2017.
- Dance, Scott. “People are throwing too much garbage in the blue bin — and it’s upending the economics of recycling,” Baltimore Sun, 20 June, 2018
- Fears, Darryl. “This Baltimore 20-year-old just won a huge international award for taking out a giant trash incinerator.” The Washington Post. 18 April 2016.
- Foam Alternatives Vendor List.
- Maize, Kennedy. “Energy from Waste: Greenhouse Gas Winner or Pollution Loser?” Power. 1 July 2016.
- Maryland Green Registry
- Mock, Brentin. “Baltimore scraps its waste-to-energy plan.” City Lab. 22 March 2016.
- Noor, Dharna. “Activists Push Baltimore County To Stop Sending Its Trash to City Incinerator.” The Real News Network. 3 May 2018.
- Prince George’s County Foam Alternatives Vendor List
- Thurston, George D. “Public Health Impacts of Air Emissions from the Wheelabrator Facility,” Chesapeake Bay Foundation (2017).