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In the second part of their interview, representatives from Energy Justice Network describe concrete steps Baltimore could take to move toward zero waste

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DHARNA NOOR: Welcome back to the Real News Network. I’m Dharna Noor in Baltimore.

I’ve been speaking with Mike Ewall and Dante Swinton of Energy Justice Network. They’re both among activists who are saying that the Department of Public Works here in Baltimore is going back on their word to commit to zero waste. DPW issued a Request for Proposal, or RFP, with the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority. It’s called Less Waste, Better Lives, and it calls on a closed set of consultants to bid over a $450000 contract to explore future directions for the city’s waste management. Let’s get back to our conversation. Thanks again for joining me today, Mike and Dante.

So what should be done with the waste, then? I mean, as you said, you know, zero waste doesn’t mean that we can just overnight transition to a city that doesn’t produce waste. If not landfills, if not incinerators, what should happen to this waste?

DANTE SWINTON: The main thing that I think we’re definitely missing is the fact that the city has not done a very good job of educating its residents on the importance of recycling and the importance of source separation, and all of that. Right now, two years ago the city gave everyone a giant trash can. They chose not to give everyone a recycling bin, they didn’t think people would recycle. And I’ve heard that plenty of times, and it was one of the reasons why they didn’t go and do that. But again, we have a very low recycling rate, residential recycle rate. It’s only about 19.7 percent. Which, a number of other cities are about that level. Nevertheless, there’s still a lot more waste that we’re not actually handling properly.

So what we did was we started to incentivize recycling program pilot in Westport, Mt. Winans, and Lakeland, the communities around the incinerator. And so we hired, hired five folks to be our block captains to collect weight data. We got about 100 homes to participate in the program, and we managed to increase the rate of recycling by 26 percent over the city’s average rate. But it’s probably a lot higher for that particular community, because a lot of people weren’t recycling prior to the program. But we managed to recycle four tons in two months. About 40 percent of the homes that were a part of it hadn’t been recycling before. And a lot of the folks that we educated didn’t know much about the impact of the incinerator.

So there is a major disconnect with people’s, with people and their trash. And if we’re actually able to start increasing recycling rates then there’s less of a concern as to, oh, we’re going to have illegal dumping here, there, that and the other. We just haven’t done enough to to make that connection with people. And we learned the moment that you actually do, and you create incentives behind it, people participate to a greater degree.

And so according to the EPA, about 75 percent of what we throw out right now is recyclable or compostable. And as I mentioned, the 19.7 percent we’re way behind that. So we have to spend time educating the public and getting the city to start investing in facilities that would actually replace the incinerator.

MIKE EWELL: If I were to make a plan for the city of what to prioritize to move in a better direction, the first thing would be to close the incinerator, because turning over half of the waste into air pollution, and then the rest into toxic ash to the landfill, is not helping anyone’s health. It’s the biggest health problem. Then to actually slow down the amount of waste that we have to send to the landfill, so we can use that public asset slowly and have it last as long as possible, I would do four things. First, I would do the pay as you throw type of thing, where people already used to paying per electricity, gas, water for how much they use, now they might be billed unfairly on the water recently, but nonetheless, people are used to that. Yet with waste you can be putting out one bag a month, your neighbor could be putting out ten, and you pay the same fee. That’s just not fair.

So the places that they do pay per bag, they find an immediate on average 44 percent reduction in the amount of waste that people generate and put out for disposal, because people consume less and recycle more when that happens. So first I would do that. I would also curb composting collection, including food scraps, because that will get a lot of things out of the waste stream and make sure that the landfill is not gassy and stinky, because that’s the stuff that’s breaking down that causes that. I would mandate deconstructions and we’re not taking wrecking balls to buildings and make a lot of waste, but creating jobs, like some in Baltimore are already doing. Having people, particularly people having a hard time finding employment, people just out of jail, getting jobs, to retrain them and get a workforce going to deconstruct and dismantle buildings, and get all the value out of those reusable recyclable materials.

And then finally at the state level get a bottle bill so that there’s an incentive to, you pay a little bit more when you buy a bottle or can, and then you get that money back, and people then collect it and get their money back.

DHARNA NOOR: So your a group and a couple others, United Workers, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, met with DPW to try to talk about this RFP, right. Talk about how that went. What came out of that? I know that you were pushing for some changes to be made before this resolution was introduced.

DANTE SWINTON: Sure. So we had that meeting last Tuesday. It was a number of folks. And there’s a representative from Energy Justice. We are both in the [inaudible] conference that we called in. Institute For Local Self-Reliance, United Workers was in there and Councilwoman Clarke, who introduced this resolution to push back against the RFP. And then DPW’s Director Chow and a number of staff members, recycling coordinator, all of those folks were in there, too. So it was actually this, like, really big, like, super important meeting.

But within the first couple of minutes of even suggesting that the language in the RFP was wrong, Rudy Chow did not like that. And so he got very defensive, and it kind of all went downhill from there. There was a lot of interruptions on behalf of DPW, so we had to try to interrupt back to, like, let us finish our points. And it just kind of went crazy, and they didn’t, they didn’t see the importance of needing to shift this, because it doesn’t talk about the impacts of incineration. It talks about, yeah, let’s talk about the positives of burning stuff. It doesn’t talk about the fact that it’s the largest polluter in the city. It doesn’t talk about the number of jobs that can be created when you actually go away from incineration towards zero waste. It completely disregards all of that. All it’s concerned about is keeping what the authority believes is the right way of handling waste in Maryland, and that’s to keep this incinerator around for maybe 2040, maybe beyond.

So there was a definite tension between everyone because of that inability to understand why we found it important to shift the language, and that just maintained itself throughout the entire conversation. And we hoped that director Chow would have been willing to push back the date, and open it up to more consultants that actually had experience in zero waste. He wasn’t, he went forward with it last Thursday.

MIKE EWELL: The two main points that they seem to bring out, one is that they wanted this all of the above kind of strategy. There’s just one look at everything. And yet in looking at everything, they clearly had language in there, like, the benefits, but not the downsides of incineration. So it was biased, and not looking at everything, but looking at some things that were just so off the wall that there’s no point in spending almost half a million of the city’s dollars on it.

The DPW’s other response was that the zero waste goals that we’re pushing for and that the city has in unanimous council resolution said they’re pushing for is just visionary, and as the Department of Public Works they have to be operational. They have to deal with the day-to-day reality of where the waste is going to go. Well, Neil Seldman with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance pointed out there are many cities that have already operationalized zero waste. San Francisco is close to 80 percent diversion from landfills, and they have no incinerators in the area. So they’re already well on their way, and well past where Baltimore is. That’s actually happening. So the idea that they could just dismiss it and say we’re in some academic world and not a reality is just behind the times.

DANTE SWINTON: And I still think that also there’s a very classist and racist perspective on Baltimore City, in terms of its ability to go in a zero waste direction. We have cities like Memphis that are very similar demographics, just slightly larger than Baltimore. There are organizations that also help cities go in this direction, like Closed Loop Partners. They give cities zero-interest loans to green their waste infrastructure. They gave Memphis money to give everyone a large 96-gallon recycling cart, even bigger than our trash cans here. Their recycling rates more than doubled once they did that. We provide measly 25-gallon max bins to residents here, and they still are charged rather than getting them for free, which is counterintuitive to the idea of zero waste.

DHARNA NOOR: We talked about this a bit off camera, but council resolutions aren’t binding. So what are you hoping that this council resolution will do to this RFP? What kind of pressure are you hoping it will put on DPW to change?

DANTE SWINTON: Even though they’re not binding, I feel like all these resolutions definitely show the departments of the city and just the people in the city where the city should be going. And in this case with this RFP, it pretty much calls out DPW to say we’re trying to hold you to your word. It’s all about a combination of things. It’s about safety, it’s about improving quality of life here in the city. And if we close that facility, that’s, that’s the direction that we’re going. We are always concerned about the level of crime that happens in Baltimore City and everything, and yet no one really makes that connection, at least citywise, up until recently, that the level of lead, and not only lead paint in homes and what have you in pipes, but also in the air, and people being subjected to that for years upon years leads to additional violent behavior from folks.

So we wonder why, why are we so violent? Why are all these crimes happening, why can’t we change it? It’s because not only do we have a lack of resources for folks to be able to get jobs and be able to live our lives in that regard, we also continue to poison folks. And until we actually take the stand and go a different direction, that’s basically what we’re going to have to keep dealing with in our, in our city. So to shut down this incinerator, it kills multiple birds with one stone. So you keep, you get cleaner air. You add the number of jobs from composting, recycling, and otherwise. In fact, for every 10000 tons of material you get 10 jobs for recycling and composting, as opposed to just one job per 10000 tons for incineration. So that’s plenty of jobs that could be created right here in Baltimore City.

And the cost to go in this direction, it’s not, not that expensive. And I think that there’s always this pushback, too. It’s like, oh, this is like a pipe dream. It’s going to cost so much money. There have been facilities that have been built with the same amount of money we use to burn trash every year that recycle a quarter of the material that we put in the incinerator; $10.5 million we budget every year just to burn stuff with the incinerator. And there are other facilities that cost a little bit more, but they cover even more material, and they’re not polluting communities along the way.

So it’s all out there, and we have the technology to do it. We have the folks that are skilled in helping the city go in that direction. It just needs DPW to, to realize that that’s what they need to be doing. And if they can’t manage to figure that out, they should be fired.

MIKE EWELL: The resolution brings some process that’s behind closed doors into the public light, and that’s a very important step in this. Whether DPW responds to this and reacts to the fact that the city council for a fourth time now are setting a direction that they need to be following, it’s something that the mayor’s office is going to have to look at, because she’s also going to be accountable for her Department of Public Works does.

DHARNA NOOR: DPW did sign onto this resolution that was passed last year, this zero waste resolution the city passed. Dante, Mike, thanks so much for coming in today.

DANTE SWINTON: Absolutely.

MIKE EWELL: Thank you.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

I reached out to DPW for their response to Energy Justice Network’s comments on this RFP and their meeting about it. Here’s what they said in an email:

“The Baltimore City Department of Public Works is looking for a consultant to take a comprehensive look at the current system: to propose methods to decrease waste generated and to increase recycling and composting; to provide disposal options for the waste that remains following waste reduction and increased recycling; and to prepare a draft plan – followed by a public review and comment period that leads to a final plan.

“The consultant is REQUIRED to consult with stakeholders, including residents, community organizations, business owners, environmental groups, elected officials, local universities, industry experts, and others. In addition, the plan will incorporate feedback from the stakeholder process, the comment response period, DPW, and will be accompanied by a comment response document.

“The RFP does not instruct the consultant to give any one option more weight than another. The intent is to study and evaluate ALL methods and options regarding waste disposal.

“DPW looks forward to working with all interested parties to develop its long-term plan.”

I also asked them about how Energy Justice Network suggested they open the contract to consultants with experience with zero waste. They said:

“We used pre-approved contractors available to us through our membership in the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority. This allowed us to expedite the process.”

We’ll keep following this story. Thanks again for watching on the Real News.

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.