Baltimore burns more than 20 times the plastic it recycles, according to a new report by Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA). Using publicly available data, researchers found the city recycles just 2.1% of plastic waste and incinerates nearly 50%, while the rest is landfilled. 

The oil industry scammed and misled the public into believing more plastic can be recycled than is actually possible, but the rate at which Baltimore is able to recycle its plastics is far lower than the national average or the four other cities researchers surveyed: Detroit, MI; Long Beach, CA; Minneapolis, MN; and Newark, NJ. The #BreakFreeFromPlastic campaign has launched a petition that calls for non-recyclable plastic to be banned, the banning of waste incineration, and for plastic manufacturers to be held responsible for disposing of their products. 

“While residents’ and workers’ call for Zero Waste has never been louder, we also face an unprecedented challenge in the plastics production boom that imposes toxics into our daily lives from the moment we are born,” Shashawnda Campbell of the South Baltimore Community Land Trust (SBCLT), which help release the report, told Battleground Baltimore.

SBCLT tweeted “Look forward to reviewing the findings of the new report on plastic waste pollution with @BaltimoreDPW, @MayorBMScott and City Council. Burning and burying 96% of plastics in Baltimore is a major problem for all of us. #ZeroWaste.”

In response to a request for comment, the city shared the overall recycling rate, but did not respond directly to the findings of the report. 

James Bentley, Director of Communications Department of Public Works, said via email that “21.55% is the 2019 recycling rate as measured by the Maryland Recycling Act (MRA). Our data on private recycling is dependent on voluntary reporting from private entities, so this is not a very accurate measurement and actual numbers may be higher.”

Bentley also claimed the report falsely asserts Baltimore does not have a citywide recycling collection program. It doesn’t quite say that, though. Page 33 of the report criticizes the efficacy of the plan, stressing that the program does not “guarantee access” for all of Baltimore: 

“Baltimore does not have a citywide recycling collection program that guarantees access to all residents and results in more plastic that could be recycled going to the incinerator.”

But Greg Sawtell of SBCLT noted that “many public housing residents do not have the option to participate in the city’s recycling program and many renters are excluded due lack of enforcement of city requirements for landlords to provide recycling at their units.”

According to the report, more than a third of non-recyclable plastic in Baltimore is plastic “film,” primarily plastic wrap and plastic bags. The city has a ban on plastic bags on the books, but earlier this year, Mayor Brandon Scott delayed the city’s plastic bag ban until October, citing the economic hardships resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and stating that more time was needed to educate the public. 

In June, in the hopes of increasing the percentage of plastic and other materials that are recycled, Baltimore launched a $9.5 million dollar public-private partnership to modernize the city’s recycling program, to educate the public about what can be recycled, and to provide households with free recycling carts. But activists say that’s not enough—they want the city to stop burning plastic and end its contract with the BRESCO incinerator. 

Producing and burning plastic contributes the equivalent pollution of 189 new coal-burning power plants every year, a 2019 study by the Center of International and Environmental law found. The U.S. is a leader in generating and burning plastic waste, according to a 2020 study published in ScienceAdvances.

“When [plastics] are burned, residues go into the air just like the exhaust from cars, trucks, and smokestacks. Besides contributing to climate change, this leads to a range of health issues from asthma to heart disease to cancer to developmental disorders in children,” Dan Morhaim of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility said in a press conference launching the report. “Is it any wonder that these diseases are all on the rise?”

Incinerating plastics poses an environmental hazard, especially to the South Baltimore neighborhoods that border Baltimore’s BRESCO incinerator, which activists have long campaigned to close down, citing disproportionate public health impacts on Black and working-class residents. One in five Baltimore school students have asthma, twice the national average. 

The SBELT’s Campbell called for an end to burning plastics.

“With new information coming to light on the particular public health harms caused by the burning of high volumes of single use plastics, now is the time to end this reckless practice,” Campbell said in a press release. “In Baltimore, we are calling for a ban on burning plastic at the BRESCO incinerator as we work alongside a global movement of communities, workers and governments to end the production of single use plastics that pose unacceptable risks to our ecosystems and the planet future generations have a right to call home.”

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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.