Baltimore City’s Quarantine Road landfill was nearly 85 percent full at the end of 2017, according to an analysis of data from the Maryland Department of the Environment, and the Baltimore Department of Public Works estimates it will fill up by 2026. Now a new law affecting incinerators could cause it, and likely other state landfills, to reach capacity even sooner.
The new Baltimore Clean Air Act, signed into law in March, imposes more stringent standards on burning waste. It mandates real-time monitoring of 20 pollutants at the city’s two waste incinerators by the first day of 2022, and requires that they meet the strongest standards in North America for four major air pollutants: mercury and sulfur dioxides by September 2020, and dioxins and nitrogen oxides (NOx) by Jan. 1, 2022. Wheelabrator Baltimore, which burns the majority of the region’s trash and is the 10th-largest incinerator in the country, said the regulations in the act could put them out of business.
If the Wheelabrator incinerator closes, the trash it burns will have to go to dumps. That means landfills would fill up sooner if they have to take raw waste, rather than the ash created when that waste is burned. Because Wheelabrator burns trash from other jurisdictions and sends it to the Quarantine Road landfill, the landfill holds a disproportionate amount of the state’s waste as compared to Baltimore’s population. If it closes, waste would likely end up in the landfill of the county in which it originated.
Right now, Baltimore isn’t limiting the trash going into its landfill. If that dump closes, there would be literally tons of trash with nowhere to put it.
The city is making plans to manage its waste and to divert materials from becoming waste in the first place, but it has a long way to go. The Office of Sustainability last month set a range of goals, among them doubling the amount the city recycles by 2030. DPW hired a consultant to study the makeup of the city’s trash and to recommend ways to reduce waste.
At the state level, Gov. Larry Hogan has set much less ambitious waste disposal goals than those of his predecessor. Marylanders generate more trash than Americans on average, according to the Maryland Department of Legislative Services.
The state is operating under a 2017 executive order signed by Hogan, which repealed a 2015 order signed by Gov. Martin O’Malley. O’Malley’s order used “zero waste” language and established an 85 percent waste diversion goal by 2040. It prohibited permits for new landfills or for expansions of existing landfills.
Hogan’s order uses much of the same language, but its goals are more modest. One of them is to reduce the daily waste generated per capita by 10 percent — to 5.5 pounds of waste per person per day — by 2035. The EPA estimated in 2013 that the average American produced 4.4 pounds per day. Jurisdictions are not required to meet all of Hogan’s goals; many of them are voluntary.
Meanwhile, Baltimore has been applying to expand the landfill for years. Jeffrey Raymond, the top spokesman at DPW, which operates the landfill, said such an expansion would stretch its life by about 30 years. He said that the application process is “a massive undertaking (requiring) years of permitting.”
In the worst-case scenario — that the city does not get permission to expand the landfill before it fills up — Raymond said the city has a few options, “all of them expensive.”
One of those options, he said, would be to ship the city’s trash to landfills in the counties or out of state.
“Regarding Wheelabrator, we’re following that situation and trying to develop and weigh some potential intermediate-term options for how to mitigate the potential impacts,” Raymond stated in an email.
According to DPW, the city’s recycling rate was under 24 percent in 2017 — and that was higher than each of the three years that preceded it. State law requires jurisdictions with more than 150,000 people to recycle at least 35 percent of their waste.
Raymond said he’s not aware of the city facing any penalties for not meeting the requirement.
So why are the city’s recycling numbers so low?
“I don’t know that there’s a quick and simple answer to that,” Raymond said. “We’ve been working for years to improve our recycling numbers, offering discounts on bins, taking recycling in pretty much any receptacle you want to use … It’s just a matter of constant communication and education.”
Stephanie Smith, an assistant director in the Baltimore Department of Planning, said the Sustainability Plan aims to reach 50 percent by 2030. (The Office of Sustainability is a division of the Department of Planning.)
The city’s long-term plans are being determined by a study conducted by Geosyntec Consultants, of Columbia. Raymond said the city is spending $465,000 on the study, and that Geosyntec would conclude it by the end of the year. A preliminary study provided details of the city’s trash and found that about a quarter of it is food scraps.
“We’re letting the consultant do its work and prepare its findings,” Raymond said, “before we can discuss long-term plans in detail.”
Presumably, the study will lead to a recommendation on a composting program. DPW Director Rudy Chow informed the City Council of the progress of the study, about the city’s recycling program and its lack of a composting program, at a hearing May 7.
“We want this report to lay out a vision for where we need to go and strategies for getting there,” Raymond said. “It’s not just that composting may be a good idea, it’s what do you do with that information.”
“Before we get to the ‘how’ we need to know what our waste composition is,” she said. “It’s always wise to make sure you’re not leaving everything to chance.”
The sustainability office’s plan called for the city to move toward zero waste — more specifically, to divert 90 percent of trash from landfills or incinerators by recycling, composting or source reduction — among other goals. Smith said they’ve received a grant to pilot a composting program. Much of their work will be to raise awareness and educate the public.
Mike Ewall, the founder and executive director of the Energy Justice Network, which advocated for the Baltimore Clean Air Act’s more stringent emissions standards, said it’s a near certainty that the city will be able to expand the landfill. Since it’s in an industrial area, he doesn’t expect much public opposition. And, he said, the state will not be an obstacle.
“The state is not trying to say no to any kinds of permits,” he said. “You’d have to be completely incompetent — and not fill out the application — for the state to reject you.”
Ewall said landfills pose much less risk to the environment than incineration.
“It’s not the size of landfills that harms people, it’s the toxicity,” he said. “We’re not afraid of the space that waste takes up.”
The state’s landfills have enough space to keep taking trash for about 30 years at the current rate of use, but some counties, like Baltimore City, are in the end stages of their landfill life. Prince George’s County’s facility was 81 percent full at the end of 2017 and was scheduled to reach capacity by 2029. Nine of Maryland’s 22 landfills were at least half full at the end of 2017.
Quarantine Road accepted more trash in 2017 than every landfill in the state but Prince George’s County’s. The two landfills carry a disproportionate load of Maryland’s trash. They accepted 41 percent of the state’s trash in 2008 and 31 percent in 2017.
If the Quarantine Road Landfill closes, the city would become the second jurisdiction in Maryland to lack a landfill. Montgomery County has an incinerator, but it has not had an open landfill since 1997. County Executive Marc Elrich wants to close that incinerator. In order to do so, the county would have to recycle and compost much more of its waste, as well as divert materials from becoming trash.
Dan Schere, of the Bethesda Beat, reported in March that Montgomery County spends almost $1 million a year to ship its recycling to Pennsylvania and that ash from the incinerator is shipped to Virginia and non-processable waste is shipped to Pennsylvania.