On this episode of The Real Baltimore, United Workers members Greg Sawtell, LaQeisha Greene and Charles Graham say Baltimore could be transformed by eliminating waste, embracing renewable energy and investing in Green Jobs
JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to the Real Baltimore. I’m your host, Jaisal Noor. With a president who is focused on gutting the EPA and believes climate change is a hoax, cities like Baltimore are taking the lead on actionable steps towards sustainability, like the introduction of a city council measure that would move the city towards zero waste. Here’s a quick report. Baltimore took a step towards recycling or reusing every piece of trash it collects as a measure that would move the city towards zero waste advanced out of committee Tuesday. AHMINA MAXEY: Not only zero waste, but getting on the path towards zero waste is doing as much work as possible to minimize the amount of waste that is generated, and then from that waste that is generated to recycle and compost as much of it as we can so that we really have barely anything left. JAISAL NOOR: During the hearing, advocates acknowledged eliminating all waste would be impossible, but noted that cities like San Francisco are currently recycling or repurposing more than 80% of their waste, and Maryland should aim for a similar goal. The committee advanced it to the full council without objections. The measure has 14 co-sponsors and city agencies submitted reports in support. Among the supporters were national leaders like Destiny Watford. The Real News documented her efforts to defeat a proposed trash burning incinerator in her South Baltimore neighborhood of Curtis Bay. She joined advocates who stressed incineration should not be considered zero waste. DESTINY WATFORD: I think the incinerator is one step of a much larger process, so we stop something that we know we don’t want. But then the question is, what do we do with our waste? JAISAL NOOR: The state of Maryland has a goal of reaching zero waste by 2040. But Watford and others like Ahmina Maxey say this must be reached without using incineration. They were in Baltimore for a national meeting of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. AHMINA MAXEY: Zero waste is such an important issue, especially in environmental justice communities that are already dealing with such a myriad of issues. You talk about jobs, you talk about education, you talk about this host of things. Zero waste can create jobs where they’re needed. If the incinerator closes, that community no longer has to deal with the air pollution impacts, right? The asthma that results as a result of that. So their health improves. You also have the benefit of economically. Incinerators have the highest capital costs of any form of energy generation. JAISAL NOOR: City agencies say they support the measure, including the Department of Public Works. MARCIA COLLINS: One of the things about zero waste that’s important is that we all have a responsibility to make it successful. We have the personal commitment, the behavioral change, the opportunities to maybe handle our waste differently. We have the things that we can do legislatively, both at the state and local level. And then, we have the things that in addition to the private sector, what the government sector can do. So it’s all part and parcel of everything that we’re working toward. JAISAL NOOR: Advocates from around the country testified in support of the measure, including some of those leading successful zero waste efforts in San Francisco. JACK MACY: We join you today in sharing a little bit about San Francisco’s story. The message that I really want to give to you today, and the basis of San Francisco’s success in recognition as a sustainability leader, is the critical importance and power of public policy to drive innovation, and to drive the development of comprehensive programs, and in working with stakeholders to create the benefits that we can get through increased diversion and moving towards zero waste. JAISAL NOOR: Now we’re joined by our expert panel. Greg Sawtell, you’re with United Workers. Talk about what zero waste means. GREG SAWTELL: Sure. So zero waste is an approach to dealing with waste, that actually has human rights, particularly our human right to breath clean air and live in healthy communities at the center. Currently, Baltimore burns and buries the majority of it’s waste. Specifically, we, and meaning residents, institutions like John Hopkins University of Maryland, send their waste to the BRESCO Incinerator, or the quarantined road landfill, which are two major sources of both air and water pollution in our city. And they have a disproportionate effect on low-income minority communities, such as Curtis Bay, Brooklyn, Cherry Hill and Westport. So what zero waste does is, it really flips the situation on it’s head, and it looks to maximize recycling, composting, and reuse of our limited materials to actually turn them into products, to bring them back into good economic use. Whereas our current approach is burning and burying limited natural resources. JAISAL NOOR: So LaQeisha Greene, you’re a member of United Workers, you’re part of the Baltimore Housing Roundtable, you’re fighting for affordable housing and better neighborhoods and communities. And as we’ve mentioned, the issue of trash and waste disproportionately affects communities like yours in Harlem Park. LAQEISHA GREENE: Absolutely. JAISAL NOOR: Talk about what your neighborhood looks like, what kind of stuff do you have to deal with on a daily basis? LAQEISHA GREENE: We have empty lots, we have a number of vacants. We have almost complete city blocks that are just vacant houses. The block that I currently live on, out of the 20 houses that are there, roughly, only four of them are livable. On the other side of the street is absolutely the same thing. There’s only about four houses out of those 20 or 25 houses that actually have people in there. And you go on to the next block, there’s a whole block that’s gone, and then the block next to that is just completely leveled. So those are the type of environmental issues that we have to deal with. There’s a lot of dumping that goes on, because we have those empty lots, and even going into the alleyways and stuff, they cause … There’s just a considerable amount of trash. JAISAL NOOR: Hearing the city council, they talked about one of the biggest issues is mattresses. LAQEISHA GREENE: Yes. JAISAL NOOR: Being dropped all over the city. LAQEISHA GREENE: Mattresses, sofas … Just regular household items that people just discard for whatever reason. Sometimes they’re infested, sometimes they just don’t want them. There were just in the houses, and they just throw them away. It costs money to take it and throw it, get someone else to come and take that from your house and take it to a landfill. It’s either have it in a landfill, or in your backyard. Or someone else’s backyard, basically. And those are the options that we’re left with right now. JAISAL NOOR: So Charles Graham, you’re a youth leader with Free Your Voice. You defeated an incinerator in your neighborhood that was gonna be planning on being built there. We know that incinerators emit harmful pollution, they’re toxic to local residents, to plant life, to water … But do you think that incinerators should be part of this moving forward, part of this plan to get to zero waste the state has by 2040? CHARLES GRAHAM: No. Incinerators create an incentive to produce waste, while in Baltimore, the incinerator that we do have, we’re feeding most of Baltimore’s waste, and 80% of that could be recycled or composted. And on that level, in terms of jobs, recycling and composting, which are both actually good green alternatives to incineration, create 10 to 20 times more jobs than incinerators. JAISAL NOOR: So Greg, you were at the city council hearing. Have you talked to elected officials about the current incinerator, the BRESCO incinerator right in downtown, and what has been the reception so far? We know that the contract is up for renewal very soon. Are elected officials being receptive to concerns about the BRESCO incinerator? GREG SAWTELL: Elected officials are hearing from residents that are directly impacted by this facility, that it’s a big problem. They’re also hearing from the Maryland Department of the Environment right now, that’s actually looking to reduce the amount of NOX emissions that come from BRESCO. It’s a real issue that we need to take seriously. We met with Mayor Pugh about the issue, and she let us know about her plan to try to double Baltimore’s recycling. Now we really can’t do that if we’re gonna continue to send most of the stuff that could be recycled or composted to be burned. JAISAL NOOR: And also, the city gets renewable tax credits, renewable credits for incineration. GREG SAWTELL: Right, correct. So in Maryland, we have a renewable portfolio standard that’s a really good idea. It’s supposed to promote clean energy, like wind and solar. Unfortunately in Maryland, we made the mistake of counting burning trash as a renewable source of power, and so that actually creates another incentive to keep burning more, instead of moving on towards these zero waste alternatives. JAISAL NOOR: In an earlier segment, we talked about needing to revitalize and prioritize communities as building blocks, something people invest in, something where people feel at home, and they want to contribute to. And I feel like that is totally tied in with the issue of trash, because if you feel like you don’t belong in a neighborhood, you don’t feel welcome there, you’re struggling to even pay your rent, you’re not gonna be worried about recycling and the issue of trash. LAQEISHA GREENE: Right. JAISAL NOOR: So that sort of goes hand in hand, and also, the educational aspect as well. Can you talk about that? LAQEISHA GREENE: Sure. Absolutely. You know, if you’re in a neighborhood where you have crumbling sidewalks, crumbling steps to the vacant houses that are themselves falling around … And when you go around the corner, there’s a whole mattress and sofa just sitting there, you get to a point where you feel like this is acceptable, you know, this is all it is. And you don’t have those incentives to want to beautify your own neighborhood, so therefore you get detached. So those things do fall hand in hand, and even when it comes down to education. I remember when I was in school, that used to be … This was during a time when they were really pushing recycle, reduce, reuse. Using renewable products, using plastic in a sense that was less damaging than paper, you know? Those education basics were there. Now, we don’t have those. It’s not even part of the curriculum anymore. I believe that when you start putting in, when you start informing people about zero waste and stop putting in back into the education, it actually causes a reflection within yourself to say “Hey, this planet is something that I’m gonna have to live on, but if I’m constantly allowing my city to burn my trash that I know that could be recycled and made into something else, how does that help with me and my children?” It’s not. JAISAL NOOR: And on a related note, to follow up in a previous interview we did with you, Maryland did approve both contracts for the offshore wind farms off the eastern shore. So, that’s gonna also help bring clean energy to the state, and also bring clean, sustainable jobs as well. Can you talk about the significance of that? LAQEISHA GREENE: Yes, that is a monumental step that Maryland did with approving that. And even the city getting on board with saying yes, taking over the old Bethlehem Steel and allowing that to be a hub where we can start producing green energy and renewable energy, whereas we’re no longer having to burn … Like you said with the incinerators, those are using fossil fuels, which also adds to the environmental degrade we have going on. When we refocus our agenda to making sure that the energies that we use, and the products that we use are sustainable, are things that can be renewable within themselves. That shows a course of responsibility that we all have. And as a city, it shows that we are looking to help beautify and correct the problems that we’ve had within this city, that we’ve allowed to come about over the past 20 or 30 years. JAISAL NOOR: All right, well I want to thank you all for being part of this discussion. Greg Sawtell, you’re a member of United Workers. LaQeisha Greene, you’re also a member of United Workers, and you are a Harlem Park resident. And Charles Graham, youth leader with Free Your Voice, you helped lead this fight against the incinerator in Curtis Bay. Thank you all for joining us. LAQEISHA GREENE: Thank you for having us. JAISAL NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real Baltimore.