A waste incinerating plant in Biebesheim, Hesse, Germany stock photo from Ana Gram/Shutterstock.

Environmental activists are currently working to change Maryland’s Clean Energy Jobs Act of 2019 to un-designate trash incinerators from the state’s list of clean energy production methods. The law, passed on April 2019, mandates that the state source half of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030. All of it must be renewable by 2040.

This bill comes on the heels of DC passing its own ambitious Clean Energy Act, which mandates that 100% of the District’s electricity will come from clean energy sources by 2032, while cutting emissions by 50% by 2032. Virginia legislators, on the other hand, rejected a bill requiring all the state source 100% of its electricity from clean sources by 2036 earlier in the year.

At first glance, Maryland’s bill is encouraging in that it requires the state’s utility companies to subsidize solar and wind farms, with the goal of reducing fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. It also aims to increase clean energy businesses and create “green” jobs.

Unlike DC’s Clean Energy Act, which explicitly does not include “waste-to-energy” as a renewable energy source, Maryland’s Clean Energy Jobs Act includes not only trash incinerators, but also paper mills that produce a fuel byproduct called “black liquor.” In DC, Maryland, and Virginia, there are currently five incinerators.

76% of DC’s waste currently goes to the landfill and 11% to waste-to-energy incinerators. Only 12% of the district’s waste is recycled, with 1% composted. Source: Recreated chart, from the DC Solid Waste Diversion Report (FY 2017)

48.4% of Maryland’s waste is recycled, comprising of a 44.1% Maryland Recycling Act (MRA) recycling rate and a 4.3% Source Reduction credit. The rest (51.6%) goes to landfills and waste-to-energy trash incinerators.  Source: Own chart, based on 2017 data from Maryland’s Department of the Environment.

Based on reported figures by 17 out of 71 solid waste planning units in Virginia, 42.8% of this waste is recycled, with the rest (57.2%) going to landfills and waste-to-energy incinerators. Virginia requires that all counties meet or exceed a recycling goal of 25%. Source: Own chart, based on 2017 data from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality

Waste-to-energy controversy

Maryland’s Senate first amended the legislation to exclude trash incineration as a renewable energy source. However, that change nearly killed the bill, thanks to strong opposition by industry lobbyists, so the Maryland House of Delegates put the provision back in.

This inclusion of trash incinerators, which are found in the renewable portfolio standards (RPS) of 23 states nationwide, have divided lawmakers. Environmentalists are generally opposed to them because they are costly, polluting, and pose a health risk to people nearby.

Trash incinerators in the USA: Green = operating, orange = proposed, and red = closed. Click for the interactive version.

According to a report by Marie Donahue of the Institute of Local Self Reliance (ILSR), Maryland’s inclusion of trash incinerators traces back to 2011, when the state became the first and only state to “elevate” trash incineration to a Tier I renewable energy source, equivalent to “clean” technologies like solar and wind power. This allowed them to earn more valuable renewable energy credits than if they were classified as Tier II technology, or not at all.

“[This] legislation continues millions in subsidies for trash incineration. [It’s] a total farce for ratepayers who are being forced to subsidize burning trash because legislators, aided by lobbyists, dubbed it clean energy,” says Maryland State Senator Michael Hough (R - District 4, Frederick and Carroll Counties) who voted against the Maryland Clean Energy Act.

Maryland State Senator Ron Young (D - District 3, Frederick County), who voted in favor of the Act, agrees. He’s introducing legislation to remove waste-to-energy from Maryland’s renewable portfolio standards. “I am very opposed to incinerators and [keeping] them Tier 1,” said Young in a phone interview.

What is waste-to-energy and why does it matter?

Trash incinerators and their contribution to the grid have been a hot button issue in the United States for the past decade. While they began as a waste management strategy, they were rebranded as “waste-to-energy,” in which the burning of trash powers a steam generator to create electricity.

“It is a marketing ploy for the incineration industry” says Caroline Eader, a contributor to ILSR and advocate for zero waste solutions. “They are sold to communities as a solution to trash, [but] they are one of the most polluting and expensive sources to generate electricity.”

The Wheelabrator waste-to-energy facility smokestack near Interstate 95 in Baltimore. Image by Mike Mccaffrey licensed under Creative Commons.

For instance, the Baltimore trash incinerator, The Wheelabrator, is considered the city’s largest contributor to industrial pollution. A Chesapeake Bay Foundation report found that the plant has caused $55 million in health problems, while collecting government subsidies.

Beside being classified as a Tier 1 renewable, Eader worries that the inclusion of trash incinerators can further incentivize this “dirty” industry while allowing the state to use this technology to meet its “clean” energy goals. While many incinerators have been shutting down in the past few years due to cost and environmental concerns, this provision may enable some to remain open.

What now? Community efforts towards cleaner energy and zero waste

Aside from introducing legislation which would reclassify trash incinerators as a Tier 1 renewable energy technology, there have recently been community efforts to close down existing trash incinerators.

“Despite trash incinerators still receiving Tier 1 RPS credits, there is mounting opposition to trash incineration in Montgomery County and Baltimore City,” says Josh Tulkin, Maryland State Director of the Sierra Club. “Sierra Club will be connecting with communities located near Maryland’s two incinerators to discuss the issue and strategy and how we can help accelerate our shift to zero waste and away from incineration. We will be advocating for more bold and aggressive waste-reduction, composting, and recycling.”

Tulkin does not believe that shutting down incinerators will incentivize new ones: “No new trash incinerators have been built in this entire region in decades…The economics does not work out. Furthermore, the incinerators require contracts with the municipalities.”

A truck dumps waste which will go to an incinerator stock photo from Stastny_Pavel/Shutterstock.

A major problem remains even with the closing down of incinerators: The question of how trash will be managed, given that incinerators have been powered by waste.

“We throw away a lot of things that shouldn’t be thrown away. The general mix of things going into incinerators includes compostable materials [among other materials] that create greenhouse gases,” says Emily Ranson, Program Organizer with Maryland’s chapter of Clean Water Action.

The environmental advocates interviewed unequivocally believe that the solution to trash incineration lies in pursuing “zero waste” solutions. Ranson, for instance, thinks that investment by the state in alternatives to trash incineration will also bring more jobs to Maryland residents, from pursuing high quality recycling to resource recovery and composting.

“Not only are there alternatives to burning trash, these alternatives are being tested out successfully in Maryland already,” says Ranson.

Incinerator fire stock photo from NIKONSTOCKER/Shutterstock.

Curbside composting and pay-as-you-throw are among the alternatives being tested out in Maryland. The town New Windsor is testing out its pay-as-you-throw program, which charges residents a fixed fee for three bags of garbage. So far, the town has seen the volume of trash decrease. Montgomery and Prince George’s County already have some of the highest recycling rates in the region, at about 60%.

The Baltimore Clean Air Act may also determine the fate of both the Wheelabrator incinerator and the Curtis Bay Energy incinerator, the former of which processes medical waste for 20 states as well as Canada. If these incinerators close, in addition to the one proposed in Montgomery County, waste will likely be sent to other landfill sites while city and state officials reduce the amount of waste sent to these sites or to out-of-state incinerators.

For now, the best solution is the recognition that our electricity is inextricably connected to our consumption and that the best solution is to bring to scale the tried and true adage of reduce, reuse, and recycle, while holding municipalities accountable for incentivizing truly clean energy.

This article is part of the GGWash Urbanist Journalism Fellowship, made possible in part by the Island Press Urban Resilience Project and the Meyer Foundation.

ThienVinh Nguyen is an Urbanist Journalism Fellow with Greater Greater Washington. Vietnamese-born, California-grown, ThienVinh resides in the verdant neighborhood of Deanwood. She focuses on stories about civic engagement, urban development and planning issues that are simultaneously critical and hopeful. ThienVinh holds degrees from UCLA, Columbia University, and the University of London (UCL).

Natasha Riddle is one of GGWash's Urbanist Journalism Fellows and a Salvadorian American living in Petworth. She's also a photography and design enthusiast and an avid alleyway explorer.