The Baltimore metropolitan area generates about 3 million tons of solid waste each year. Roughly half of it goes into landfills. At that rate, more than 80 percent of the existing landfill capacity in the region will be depleted within 15 years.
Few would argue that the landfill situation has reached a crisis point -- yet. Local elected leaders nonetheless have seemed content to coast on well-meaning words until a calamity looms.
For more than a decade, top officials of the metro jurisdictions -- Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties -- have discussed taking a regional approach to waste disposal. A consensus has emerged to spread various facilities around the map so both the pain and the gains would be apportioned. One jurisdiction could host a trash-to-energy incinerator, say, while another could take a composting plant. Sharing the burden in this way makes more sense each passing year, as landfill space keeps shrinking and disposal costs keep climbing.
However, the six local governments and the Baltimore Metropolitan Council -- the non-profit corporation that oversees the subdivisions' regional efforts -- have done little more with their waste strategy than talk about it. As one area disposal expert says, government officials will put a regional plan into action only when they have been scared into the realization that handling their trash problems individually will prove far more expensive than they could afford.
To play this waiting game is dangerous. Officials must move beyond generalities to specifics and then begin the task of convincing their constituents of the wisdom of a broad, farsighted program. One step in this direction could be taken this spring when a long-promised, often-delayed BMC plan is finally due to be released. It reportedly will include lists of facilities and possible sites for them.
The BMC has also been involved in talks to bring a yard-waste composting plant to eastern Howard County. Slated to serve Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties and Baltimore City, the facility would markedly reduce the local waste stream, a fifth of which consists of leaves, grass and other yard debris. Another encouraging sign is the report that the owners of the Pulaski Highway incinerator in East Baltimore might replace the plant with a regional incinerator.
Hopeful signs notwithstanding, it's time for local jurisdictions to begin turning all the talk about a metro-wide waste plan into action.