Maryland called nation's biggest trash generator


November 29, 1991|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Evening Sun Staff

Two facts were incorrectly reported in a story Friday about a new almanac comparing the environmental quality of cities, states and countries. Baltimore scored poorly in a "green index" of big cities for spending a relatively low percentage -- rather than a high percentage -- of its municipal budget on sewage treatment and sanitation. Also, each American produces about 4 pounds of trash a day, not 14. The Evening Sun regrets the errors.

Maryland's official nickname may be the Free State, but a new almanac suggests that a better handle might be the Trash State.

The 1992 Information Please Environmental Almanac, compiled by the World Resources Institute, says that Maryland generates more waste per person annually -- 1.6 tons -- than any other state in the nation.


That is the only category, good or bad, in which Maryland stands out in the 606-page book, which rates U.S. cities and states and 146 countries on a variety of environmental yardsticks.

State environmental officials take issue with the almanac's ranking of Maryland as the nation's leading garbage generator. They contend that the figures are flawed and that the state really is about 15th in waste production.

Baltimore comes in near the bottom -- 52nd out of 64 -- in the book's ranking of environmental quality in the largest U.S. cities. Charm City was "greener" than Philadelphia, Cleveland and New York, but lost out to such places as San Francisco, Boston, Indianapolis and Buffalo, N.Y.

Claiming to be the first "complete guidebook for the environmentally conscious," the almanac covers everything from air pollution to food additives, from eco-tourism to global warming and the destruction of tropical rain forests. Naturally, the book is printed on recycled paper.

"Basically, [we are] trying to hold up a mirror to ourselves of how we're doing environmentally," said Allen Hammond, the almanac's editor-in-chief. Hammond also is resource and environmental information director for the institute, a Washington think tank better known for its detailed reports on global issues.

"The results were fairly intriguing," Hammond added. "I wouldn't have predicted them."

Honolulu, for instance, ranks No. 1 in the almanac's "green cities index."

The index ranks urban areas with more than 250,000 people on 14 environmental measures, including air quality, energy and water use and toxic chemical accident risk.

Not surprisingly, Baltimore fared poorly because of its air pollution problems, chiefly smog. But the city also got low marks for spending a bigger share of its budget than other municipalities on sewage and sanitation services, and a smaller proportion than many others on parks and recreation.

Maryland ranks in the almanac as one of the most urbanized states in the nation, and one of the most depleted of wetlands.

Maryland is the 5th most densely settled state in the country, with 12.5 percent of its land in urban areas, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. The state came in 9th in wetlands losses, having filled or drained 73 percent of its marshes and bogs in the past 200 years, according to a 1990 survey by the U.S. Department of Interior.

Maryland lags behind the nation as a whole in its rate of recycling, while leading most other states in incinerating its wastes. The almanac says the EPA estimates that about 13 percent of the nation's waste is recycled, while 14 percent is burned.

Maryland produces about 7.2 million tons of waste a year, according to the almanac. Only about 10 percent of it is recycled, while 17 percent is incinerated, and the rest -- 73 percent -- is put into landfills.

Americans produce 180 million tons of trash per year, the almanac says, citing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as its source. That works out to about one-half ton per person each year, or 14 pounds a day.

People living in Western Europe and Japan are only half as wasteful, the almanac says.

The amount of garbage we throw out is important because the nation's landfills are rapidly filling up and closing. Municipalities are having a hard time opening new landfills because of community opposition and because of increasingly stringent environmental regulations designed to prevent groundwater contamination and other problems.

Hammond said the almanac's state rankings of waste generation came from surveys done in 1990 and 1991 by BioCycle, a monthly magazine that covers the solid-waste industry.

But Michael Sullivan, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, says the almanac's waste figure for the state is inflated. It includes more than 1.6 million tons of construction debris that is deposited in licensed rubble dumps, he says.

Recently revised figures show that Maryland generates 5.1 million tons of solid waste per year, Sullivan says. That figure still includes some construction debris, commercial garbage and non-hazardous industrial waste, he adds.

Using the state's estimate, Maryland generates about 1.1 tons of waste per person each year, which would drop the state to 14th or 15th in the almanac's rankings.

But Maryland may not get off the hook that easily, since the waste-generation figures for 29 other states also include things other than household trash, such as construction debris, industrial waste and sewage sludge.

The rate of recycling is increasing in Maryland, Sullivan said, and should reach 25 percent by 1994, which happens to be the deadline under a 1988 state law for localities to recycle at least 20 percent.

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