Activists Say City is Breaking Zero Waste Promise (Pt. 1/2)

In a new document, the Department of Public Works calls for continued incineration and landfill use. Energy Justice Network says this contradicts Baltimore’s goal of sustainability

Activists Say City is Breaking Zero Waste Promise

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Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor, joining you from Baltimore. Last June, Baltimore City Council passed a “zero waste” resolution urging the city to reduce its waste output, backed by city officials, including the Department of Public Works. This resolution was set to quote, “advance sustainability, public health, and job creation.” But now, activists are saying, the Department of Public Works is going back on their word. The DPW issued a Request for Proposal, or RFP, within the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority, called “Less Waste, Better Lives.” 

The RFP calls on a closed set of consultants to bid over a four hundred and fifty-thousand-dollar contract, to explore future directions for the city’s waste management. Its directives include studying the positive aspects of incineration and privatizing, possibly, the city’s Quarantine Road Landfill. In response, this week, Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke issued a council resolution that calls on DPW to change the RFP, to align with the council’s zero waste goals. The resolution just passed unanimously. 

MARY PAT CLARKE: This is a resolution that reflects, really, this council’s commitment to zero waste. And the advocates who stepped forward and said that, if we’re letting out a contract for a thirty-year plan, about recycling and solid waste, we should be sure to mention this council’s consistent emphasis on a zero waste plan for Baltimore City, one in which incineration becomes a thing of the past, and not the distant future. And so, this is a blend of the request for proposal that is out, and the new council that is in, and working together, to put together zero waste with a plan that’s going forward. And that is the purpose of this resolution, to bring those two extremes together, and to make it the future of Baltimore City. 

DHARNA NOOR: And with me here to talk about all this are two guests from Energy Justice Network. We have Mike Ewall, who is the Energy Justice Network founder and director. We also have Dante Swinton, who is the group’s Baltimore zero waste organizer. Thanks for joining me today. 

MIKE EWALL, DANTE SWINTON: Thank you. 

DHARNA NOOR: Before we talk about the specifics of the RFP, I guess, what does “zero waste” mean for Energy Justice Network? We can start with you, I know that, Dante, you were there this past week, when this resolution passed. You were also there last year when the previous resolution passed in the city council. 

DANTE SWINTON: Yeah, yeah. So, for us, and Mike can cover anything we miss here, zero waste is the idea of keeping material that we use, typically a kind of cradle to grave system that we have right now, out of landfills, out of incinerators. So, instead of producing those materials and then just burning or burying them, we actually utilize them in a different manner and keep them from being removed from the system. And so, here that would be increasing recycling, increasing composting, trying to find the best way to diminish the amount of material we send to landfill, or even to the incinerator, currently. And Baltimore’s long way from that. And so, this feels like the right time to start introducing those types of policies, especially with about three years left on the city’s contract with the incinerator. 

DHARNA NOOR: And how did you all hear about this RFP, again? I know that you said it was not made public on the DPW website. So, how did you find out about it? 

MIKE EWALL: We found out about it from people who know people who are connected to consultants who had, actually, a chance to look at this. So, it was not a public process. Usually this goes straight to a public website that the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority has. But this was very much behind closed doors. The term zero waste sounds utopic, because it has the word zero in it. But we urge people not to get hung up on that. A lot of cities and other local governments, and even state governments, like the state of Maryland, have adopted zero waste plans, and it’s just like having a zero safety defects policy or a zero drug tolerance policy, or other kinds of things, like zero injuries in the workplace. 

No one sets a standard and says, “We’re going to injure five workers a year.” That would be crazy, right? So, the idea with waste is to aim for zero and get as close as you can to it, and operationally, it means no incineration and getting at least ninety percent diversion away from landfills. And everyone knows the three R’s, the other three R’s, the reduce, reuse, recycle. And that’s a simple version of the zero waste hierarchy, which has some other steps, including composting, to make sure that we keep waste out of landfills. 

DHARNA NOOR: And why incineration, specifically? I mean, I know that this is something that activists have taken specific issue with in this RFP. Why is it wrong to look at the positive aspects of incineration, as it calls to do? 

MIKE EWALL: That would be a really short study if they were, because incineration is the most expensive and polluting way to manage waste or to make energy and is worse than landfills. It’s worse than coal plants, if you’re going to pretend they’re energy facilities. So, all of that is public data, it’s out there. It’s just that promotors of incineration, that don’t even like to call it incineration or waste energy, and they use all these other euphemisms. They have this belief system that is not based in facts, that just perpetuates this idea that somehow incinerators are better than landfills, even though all they do is turn trash into- for every hundred tons you get thirty tons of toxic ash that still goes to landfill, and still is actually more dangerous than the landfill in a lot of ways. And the other seventy percent become air pollution. That’s not a good alternative. 

DANTE SWINTON: And half the weight that goes to the landfill right now, every year, is incinerator ash, so it’s not like we’re fully getting rid of it, at all. 

DHARNA NOOR: So, but talk more about what you mean by worse, like worse in what sense, what are the effects of that ash, of those emissions, for people who don’t know? 

DANTE SWINTON: Sure, sure. So, for those who don’t know, the incinerator is actually the city’s largest air polluter. It accounts for thirty-seven percent of the entire air emissions from all city industry, which is crazy. That one white smokestack with Baltimore written on the side, people disregard when they just think of it as a monument, coming into the city from the south, but it is far from that. So, you have it being number one in sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury, lead. And sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides contribute to asthma, heart disease, and stroke. Even one day of exposure to those pollutants will increase the lifetime risk of heart disease and stroke. And as I have mentioned, mercury and lead. It’s number one in both of those, in the city’s industry. 

And so, I did some calculations, recently. And from the time the facility went online, on average, to now, it’s released about ten thousand total pounds of lead over the course of thirty-four years, or so, being around. And it doesn’t take very much lead to harm folks, at all, children or otherwise. So, we try to underscore the fact that this facility is not what people seem to think it is, and that it’s causing a lot more damage than folks realize. 

In terms of its nitrogen oxide emissions, closing the facility would be the equivalent of taking about half the cars or the trucks off of Baltimore’s roads, just from one smokestack. And I mean, that would be so beneficial, not only from a health standpoint, but from a traffic standpoint, if we could do something like that. So, it’s just really a heavy polluter. And I think that people just –  there’s just not that connection between where the trash goes and what ends up happening to it, and to them, because of it. 

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah, last year, last June, when this zero waste resolution was passed in City Council, shortly after, the results of another resolution passed to reduce the emissions from the incinerator, right? So, is part of the ask that this RFP meets those standards, as well? 

MIKE EWALL: There are actually four resolutions passed so far. So, there’s the zero waste one, there was a very ambitious climate resolution passed the same month, last June. And then, later in the year in October, they passed a nitrogen oxides resolution. And this is because of this facility being close to sixty percent of all of Baltimore’s industries’ nitrogen oxide emissions, from that one smokestack, and this being the pollution that aggravates and triggers asthma attacks. So, the health department called for this, and the state is in the process of tightening the standards for how much the trash incinerator can put out, of this pollutant. 

But they’re only doing a very modest decrease over what they’re currently putting out. They’re not making them meet the requirements of what a new facility would have to do, like the Energy Answers Facility that was almost built here. It would have been the city’s third waste incinerator. Thankfully, that was stopped. But as a modern one, it would have had to meet a standard more than three times as strict as what they’ll have to me here. 

DHARNA NOOR: So, to move on from incineration a bit, the RFP also calls to fill up the city’s landfill more quickly, and even possibly consider privatizing it. So, if landfills are in many senses better than incinerators for public health, for the environment, why is that wrong? Why is it wrong to continue to fill up the landfill? Could privatizing it just makes it more efficient? What’s the issue here? 

DANTE SWINTON: Yeah, I’ll touch a little bit of base on it. So, the landfill actually came online at the same time as the incinerator. The city wanted to lower its cost of waste disposal, they want to send it outside of the city’s boundaries, or what have you. So, the incinerator came on, the landfill came on, and like I said, half the weight that goes there the incinerator ash. The existing landfill, which we still owe millions of dollars on- I believe it’s about seventeen million dollars to finish- has its capacity reaching or reaches capacity at 2026. 

And so, what the city has been doing, on top of ash and everything else that goes in there, they’ve bought this industrial landfill adjacent to it, with the intention of expanding the landfill. And so, it actually doesn’t talk about that in the RFP, which I thought was interesting. But the plan is to keep the landfill open until 2052. It’s very problematic to just believe that we can handle all of our trash by just burying it, when there’s definitely a lot more possibilities with it. We’ve produced about nine billion tons of plastic since the 1950s, and most of that is in landfills right now, which we could have actually been utilizing in different ways, rather than just having them take up space in the landfill and otherwise. 

MIKE EWALL: One of the more important point to understand is that incineration is worse than landfilling, and we know that in terms of a study that we commissioned for D.C., looking at incineration versus four other landfills that they have access to. And even though the landfills are two to four times as far in terms of trucking distance- now, Baltimore has got a landfill within the city, but for D.C. It’s a different story. Even with all that extra trucking, which turned out to be very insignificant, on the majority of the ten criteria that we looked at, including nitrogen oxide pollution and global warming, most of those criteria, incineration was worse, even though they didn’t have to truck as far. 

And even on global warming, where the incinerator industry insists that they’re a solution- which is preposterous, because they’re two and a half times as bad as coal plants, in terms of the amount of CO2 coming out to make the same amount of energy- but we know, just objectively looking at this, that incineration is more of a problem and makes landfalls more dangerous. Because it’s not the volume of waste that hurts people, it’s the toxicity. So, even though we’re sending smaller amounts, smaller volume and small amount of weight, of waste, to the landfill in the form of ash, we’re sending it in a form that has more toxins in it, and those toxins are more available to leach into the groundwater and to blow into the community, when they use this ash on top of the landfill, as landfill cover. 

But to the privatization question that you raised. I’m originally from Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania is the number one importer of trash. Number two is Virginia. Now, Maryland is right in between. Why is Maryland not an importer? Well, that’s because private facilities want to take waste from everywhere they can. And Maryland’s been very smart in that all waste facilities, except the Wheelabrator Incinerator here and one landfill in Western Maryland, are in the public sector. And when they’re in the public sector, public entities want to preserve their landfill space and hold onto it, because it’s an asset for them. They’re not trying to fill it up as fast as they can, like a private company does, which is why you see Pennsylvania and Virginia and dumped on so much. 

So, to have this recommendation that maybe they should privatize it or intentionally fill it up as fast they can to make a bunch of money, runs counter to the long term interests of Baltimore City. Baltimore County right now has an opposite strategy. They have a public landfill, and their strategy is to not use it, to prioritize sending Baltimore County’s trash to be burned in Baltimore, take back less than their share of the ash that they’re supposed to be taking their share of- but they’re not taking the full share- and to dump anywhere else in Pennsylvania that they can. 

DHARNA NOOR: And to be clear, they are taking some of the ash, they’re just not taking the proportionate share of it, right? 

MIKE EWALL: Only a few years ago did they start taking the ash back at all. Until then, all of it was being dumped in Baltimore’s landfill, Baltimore City’s landfill, back when they started. Now they’re up to taking thirty percent of the ash, but their share of the waste being burned here in Baltimore is about thirty-six, thirty-seven percent. So, even though they’re supposed to be taking their share, they’re not quite there yet. 

DHARNA NOOR: All right. Mike, Dante, thanks so much for being here today. We’re going to pick this up in part two. 

MIKE EWALL, DANTE SWINTON: Absolutely, thank you. 

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