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With Incinerator’s Likely Closure, Baltimore Activists Push for Zero Waste

Supporters say "Baltimore's Fair Development Plan for Zero Waste" would create jobs and boost the city's recycling and composting rate.

Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott speaks at the podium. Left to right behind him: Councilmembers Sneed, Middleton, Burnett, Clarke, and Reisinger. (Photo by Isaiah Green, United Workers Media Team)

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On Saturday, February 22, a coalition of environmental, human rights and youth activists, community groups and city council members gathered at the University of Maryland School of Social Work to launch a plan that would transform how the city handles its waste. The goal: to put Baltimore on track to becoming a “zero waste” city, all while centering residents most harmed by environmental injustices.

The plan is titled “Baltimore’s Fair Development Plan for Zero Waste” and it’s the product of a decade of environmental advocacy out of southern Baltimore neighborhoods like Curtis Bay, Brooklyn, Mt. Winans, Westport, Cherry Hill and Lakeland. The area has long faced disinvestment and displacement to make way for industry; as a result, South Baltimore is ranked among the most polluted zip codes in Maryland and the country.

But now activists and residents see South Baltimore at the heart of a new vision for the city as it seeks to meet requirements for a Clean Air Act passed in 2019. The new environmental regulations will likely result in the closure of the Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Company (BRESCO) trash incinerator, the city’s largest industrial polluter. The incinerator handles 716,000 tons of trash per year, but as a report points out, about 80 percent of the waste incinerated is recyclable or compostable. The goal, organizers say, is to put Baltimore on the path from incineration to a recycling and compost-based system.

“The Clean Air Act was a big game changer,” says Shashawnda Campbell, an organizer with United Workers, one of the organizations behind the Zero Waste plan. “We need the city to hold people accountable in implementing [the Clean Air Act], and we know BRESCO can’t comply. Our plan is addressing that if BRESCO shuts down, these are the next steps.”

Before United Workers hired Campbell, she was part of Free Your Voice, a collective of students in Curtis Bay and Brooklyn who banded together to stop construction of the Fairfield Renewable Energy Project, a trash incinerator that would have been the largest of its kind in the nation. That victory came in 2016; since then the collective has operated as a United Workers committee on initiatives like bringing environmental justice coursework into a local high school.

Last year, as the city council passed the Clean Air Act, BRESCO incinerator owners said the new regulations would be impossible to comply with. It is increasingly likely the city will not renew BRESCO’s contract in 2021, according to Greg Sawtell, a United Workers organizer. “That’s our runway to launch implementation of a zero-waste plan,” he says. “We’ve already planted the seeds.”

With grassroots funding and grants, community organizations including United Workers and the Fair Development Roundtable hired zero waste consultant Gary Liss & Associates and the Institute for Local Self Reliance to collaborate on a plan responding to concerns of Baltimore residents, stakeholders and Baltimore City Council, which included lack of recycling resources and illegal dumping in vacant lots. Toxic air pollution from BRESCO was also a top concern, as it causes $55 million in heath problems a year.

“There’s one definition of zero waste,” says Gary Liss — it means sending nothing to landfill. “But there are many ways to get there.” What makes the Baltimore plan stand out, according to Liss, is the “triple bottom line: social equity, worker dignity and environmental justice.” He adds, “There’s been more focus on those issues here than anywhere in the country.”

The plan proposes a number of solutions to transition Baltimore to zero waste. One option is “mission-based” recycling and composting to replace Baltimore’s current system. Currently, there is no compost facility in the city and the current recycling system is wedded to a “big waste” company that profits off landfills. In the new model, worker-owned or nonprofit companies would handle recycling and compost programs that included local hiring and living wage jobs with benefits, selling recycled commodities to local and regional manufacturers, and advocating for policies to reduce waste.

To end illegal dumping, the plan proposes a $1 vacant lot program for nonprofits and community groups to take over land that’s been treated as dumping sites, coupled with a $1 million dollar stewardship fund for communities to transform the blighted lots. (The South Baltimore Community Land Trust is already leading work in that regard.)

The plan also calls for the city to commit $20 million annually to fund “deconstruction,” as opposed to demolition, of vacant buildings, while salvaging bricks, doors, windows and lumber. Additionally, there’s a request to create resource recovery centers around the city where residents and haulers can drop off reusable materials.

Creation of living-wage jobs for residents who have suffered most under environmental injustice is key. The plan suggests that Baltimore’s zero-waste plan could create 1,800 green jobs in the recycling and composting industries. There’s also a clear environmental benefit: 633,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions are eliminated in the transition to zero waste, according to the plan.

“We are attacking the root,” says Campbell of the plan’s multi-layered focus on equity and environmental justice. “We cannot keep doing the same thing when it’s not working and it’s hurting people. After making communities a dumping ground for so long, you can’t just wash over it — you have to address it.”

The organizers’ next goal is to make the plan an important talking point in Baltimore’s upcoming elections, with the ultimate goal of the city formally adopting it. Sawtell stresses the plan is “not a pilot” to be unrolled through small initiatives. “This needs to meet the needs of all residents, doesn’t leave anyone out, and is working at the scale of the entire city.”

For Campbell, the most impactful part of organizing — from stopping an incinerator to developing a zero waste plan — is that it has been informed by young people. “Young people are speaking out, talking to their peers, doing everything they can even while they’re in school,” she says. “There are youth that care, because this is not a grown-folk problem — it’s all of our problem.”

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Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit. 

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Tags: baltimoreenvironmental justicezero waste

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