At first, I was excited to see that the City Council was taking action to fix our broken municipal waste system.
But as I read the text of the bill to create a new Zero Waste Commission for Baltimore, I was shocked to see nothing about what’s really important – namely, phasing out trash incineration.
Instead, Bill 21-0075 only prioritizes ending the practice of sending waste sent to landfills by 2035. In its first year, the commission is to produce a plan for meeting that goal.
Meanwhile, the bill gives special status to Wheelabrator Technologies, the operator of the polluting BRESCO trash incinerator. In fact, it’s the only private waste company to have representation on the proposed commission.
Sadly, the only thing the proposed commission seems designed to do is spend another year (or longer) to produce yet another plan, while city lives continue to be cut short by the toxic air we breathe.
Without meaningful goals, funding sources or a timetable for action, it’s the formula for a lot of talk and no change.
As a resident of the South Baltimore neighborhood of Lakeland, I have lived my entire 16 years between two grim landmarks – the city’s worst air polluter, the BRESCO incinerator, and the second-worst methane emitter in the state, the Quarantine Road Landfill.
That giant emissions stack that motorists see from I-95 south of downtown spews nitrogen oxide (NOx), sulfur dioxide, formaldehyde, mercury and other health-harming substances every day.
That stack is about two miles from my home.
Because of City Hall’s ongoing choice to rely on burning and burying, my neighbors and I have a greater chance of developing asthma, lung disease and other medical issues.
I see these health problems in real time afflicting many of my classmates already. These are kids who use inhalers and cannot participate fully in active sports.
The neglected communities in South Baltimore are no longer willing to host these landmarks to environmental injustice. That is why we have been taking action.
A Plan Already Written
For the past several years, some of my proudest moments have come from working alongside fellow youth and community members to change this waste system, so that we are the last generation to grow up with it.
We were deeply disappointed last year when city leaders, who talked a good game, chose to renew Wheelabrator’s contract for another decade. (The New Hampshire-based company recently rebranded itself with quite a name: WIN Waste Innovations!)
Nevertheless, we remain optimistic and committed. Together, we’ve already created the city’s first Zero Waste Plan, and have been working ever since to see that it is implemented. Our systematic approach calls for the city to:
• Establish a “Just Transition for Zero Waste Fund” to develop new community-owned compost, recycling, deconstruction and reuse infrastructure
• End subsidies for the incinerators and landfills we are transitioning away from
• Build and strengthen local end markets for compost and recycled commodities
• Establish protections for sanitation workers as we transition from outdated technologies to current approaches
• Create relief funds for the communities that have hosted toxic waste infrastructure for decades
None of these pieces are easy, but to us, this approach gives us a chance if we are all working together to solve the scale of the problem.
Courage and Revenue
Here’s the thing: creating a mandate or setting a big goal in a plan is important but doing so without a way to pay for it leads us in circles.
As residents, we lose trust in our elected officials when plans or commissions are created but aren’t given a real chance to work.
I am only 16, but I have already been through this cycle multiple times of creating another plan for the same purpose all over again.
• Do our elected officials have the courage now, in the face of this local waste crisis and the global climate emergency, to demand that big waste producers like Amazon pay their fair share?
The models for doing so are out there. Our leaders cannot state that they are for Zero Waste without offering up their ideas for how to pay for it.
• Will our leaders take the steps we already know are needed so Baltimore will be ready to ditch BRESCO when its contract expires in a decade?
• Will they join with the thousands of residents who are already trying on their own to build local compost infrastructure that is community-led and creates new local jobs?
Black Gold and More
We already know there is the potential to take 40% of the food scraps and organics that Baltimore burns and buries and turn it into nutrient-rich compost to grow local food.
I caught compost fever the first time I put my hands on some of the “black gold” from Marvin Hayes and the youth-led Baltimore Compost Collective.
Ever since, I cannot get the picture out of my mind of piles of food scraps from my school cafeteria being transformed in order to feed the soil that another mentor, Eric Jackson at Cherry Hill’s Black Yield Institute, could use to grow fresh fruits and vegetables.
For me, these are the leaders that are doing it now. This is the kind of leader I am working to become. Their efforts that should be scaled up and made normal instead of the BRESCO smokestack in my community’s backyard.
Instead of a new commission producing yet another plan, let’s focus on the public and private city entities that we already know are big waste generators and encourage them to participate in community-led composting and real recycling.
I am working on creating that choice at Baltimore City schools and invite you to join in the effort. No single institution can do this alone.
But I’m encouraged because I think Baltimore has what it needs to get started – great strategies and an eager, well-organized community. We urge our leaders to act now, not deflect responsibility with another layer of bureaucracy. We cannot afford to delay this any longer.
• Carlos Sanchez is a junior at Benjamin Franklin High School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org