Baltimore’s Zero Waste Future

ILSR has been supporting grass roots, youth led community organizations in Baltimore fending off new incinerators while implementing urgent Zero Waste measures, transitioning the City from the aged, polluting incinerator in Downtown, Southwest Baltimore. These Zero Waste practices would further help the city and assorted communities across the region address other pressing challenges and opportunities; including the need for more good jobs, reduced recidivism, elimination of the ‘digital divide’, and creation of new small businesses, community-based composting and food production in addition to environmental education.

 The following article makes suggestions for transforming Baltimore’s current recycling system, developing an equitable local compost sector, expanding re-use businesses, and advancing general infrastructure development. The City administration is calling for the immediate setting and implementation of Zero Waste goals and local facilities.  Updates on youth led community-based activity in the context of rapidly changing Zero Waste markets, technology and entrepreneurial opportunities are also provided.    

Baltimore’s Zero Waste Future

Amendments to the 10- year Solid Waste Management Plan for Baltimore City are being heard for approval by the Board of Estimates on Wednesday, June 1, 2022.  The time is ripe for a new look at Baltimore’s recycling, composting and overarching waste management system. The national recycling average is nearly 35 percent while the Maryland Recycling Act mandates a recycling rate of at least 35 percent. Baltimore is far below what the best recycling cities are doing across the United States, approaching or beyond 75 percent, in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Oceanside, CA, Bethlehem, NY, Seattle, WA, and Portland, OR. A much more proactive approach is needed as Baltimore’s recycling rate has hovered between 15-24 percent over the last decade while the 10-year Solid Waste Management Plan omits any goals to increase composting.  Although the  “Food Matters” Program funded by the Natural Resources Defenses Council and the lack of local compost infrastructure are highlighted in the 10 year Solid Waste Management Plan, no specific goals to evaluate sites for a compost facility alone or in partnerships with private operators are included.  With City administration calling for Zero Waste now,  a commitment to a co-equal joint development process advancing recycling, compost, re-use organizations and overarching local Zero Waste infrastructure is needed to end the regions’ long reliance on environmentally unjust landfills and incinerators.

The US recycling system changed dramatically in 2018 when China banned imports of recycled materials from the United States, as loads regularly contained contaminated rates as high as 40 percent. Even a totalitarian regime could not withstand the public outrage and international embarrassment of its ’recycling system’ after the film Plastic China by Juliang Wang, ‘A Portrait of Poverty, Ambition and Hope Set in a World of Hate’, was released and distributed in 2017. Besides, China’s 20-year plan to introduce needed raw materials into their infrastructure factories was nearly complete. The Country’s excellent recycling program can now supply factories, as envisioned by Chou En Lai when he declared that the 10,00 workers of the Shanghai Resource Recovery Company be formed immediately after Communist victory in 1949.

US recycling has pivoted to domestic markets, which has been a boon for local recycling efforts. Investment in recycled paper mills, plastic plants and electronic scrap recycling and reuse has soared. Prices for paper, plastic and electronic scrap surpassed prices from before the China Debacle when prices fell to zero. The market for glass has proven insatiable and investments in composting and anaerobic digestion are rolling throughout the country.  This is certainly true in the Baltimore Region, given the rapid expansion of capacity to process source separated organic material from households, businesses and other institutions.

But Baltimore itself has not yet fully adjusted to these new opportunities, and as a result is paying a high opportunity cost for continued investment in an at best mediocre resource management system. The recycling rate for the city hovers at 24%. Ironically, several years ago Baltimore did make a highly profitable investment in composting. Camp Small transforms yard debris into compost for city projects and processes fallen trees into lumber for the region’s wood working sector. The project was funded by the city’s financial agency and has paid off in hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings while also producing revenue. The project is repaying the initial $100,000 loan from Baltimore’s Innovation Loan Fund to start the city enterprise. But plans for replicating Camp Small, even with federal aid, have stalled; despite the development of a comprehensive citywide plan for organics collection and processing several years ago; and despite the progress made in the private sector. New state laws mandating composting and the availability of funding from federal Build Back programs offer a vast opportunity for capturing up to 90 percent of the city’s organic discards within a few years. Organic matter can comprise up to 40 percent of the city’s waste stream.

The rest of the city’s recycling program remains based on pre 2018 framework, continuing the single stream mistakes of the pre-China era.

The city collects mixed recyclables and ships them 20 miles out of town for processing by Waste Management in Elkridge, MD. The process is sloppy. Glass, which is 20-25 percent of the recycling stream, is not recycled for industry. Rather, the company utilizes glass for its own purposes as a landfill cover. The company has not installed proper equipment despite the demand for recycled glass by diverse industries: 100,000 tons of recycled glass is equivalent to 2,000 industrial jobs in bottle and insulation manufacturing, construction and abrasives industries.

Instead of sending off mixed low value materials worth less than $100 per ton, Baltimore could be processing these same items into clean, baled and aggregated materials in house, producing exports worth up to $650 and higher.  In addition, with local processing, about 25 direct jobs would be created at one such facility in Baltimore.

More jobs are in the offing.

A bill that mandates the deconstruction of buildings in the city, proposed by City Council Member Odette Ramos, would increase the number of jobs at one deconstruction company in Baltimore, Second Chance, by 250 jobs, doubling their current employment of 250 workers earning fair wages and benefits.  Second Chance crews cover the entire east Coast and as far west as Ohio to keep a vibrant inventory of valuable, often hard to get, building materials.  This company is just one of three pioneering non-profit organizations that make Baltimore distinct. Baltimore based non-profit Humanim pioneered training for hundreds of workers through deconstructing abandoned buildings under contract with the City. For the past 30 years, the Loading Dock nonprofit building materials reuse center has further provided recycled building materials to low-income communities.

Future Beckoning

Even better, more jobs are available with a few tweaks to the current recycling system using updated technologies.

+ Mini Materials Recovery Facilities or MRFs

MRF’s are small scale (50-150 tons per day), recycling processing plants cost less to build and operate than sending materials to a large 1,000 ton per day processing plant. Baltimoreans can go kick the tires at the newest plant in the United States in Cumberland County, NJ. Or see the videos of the operating plants in Steamboat Springs, CO. Each plant needs 25 workers. Three strategically located plants in Baltimore, all shipping directly to end use markets will allow recycling trucks to tip their loads quickly and get back on route efficiently and more cost effectively.

+ Implementing Dual Stream

recycling would also add more jobs and increase revenue to the city by delivering clean materials, a crucial key to domestic markets. Even during the post China import ban debacle, communities that had good dual stream systems continued to sell to markets for paper, glass, plastic and metal. Baltimore is poised for dual stream recycling now after the Recycling Partnership paid for new carts for each household in the city. Limited community education materials were distributed or posted with additional funding from the Recycling Partnership while direct outreach around properly utilizing the new carts varied across the city and council districts.

However, the carts are being used to continue the flawed single stream system, shipping low quality, contaminated materials out of town for poor processing.  But, these carts could underpin a dual stream system—all paper in the carts, all containers in a bin to be collected at the same time, a first step towards obtaining high quality dual stream materials begins.

Dual stream collection can be as cost effective as single stream collection too. The cost of processing dual stream materials is one-third the cost of single stream processing; yet another source of savings for the city.

+ Curb sort collection

Curb sort collection offers an opportunity for even more savings and efficiencies. Curb sort requires collection workers to sort through bins and place them in compartments for each material on the truck.


Collection costs are increased because of labor time needed to complete routes. Three workers may be used instead of two. But there are valuable advantages: Clean, sorted and processed (balers on board) are delivered to the specialized mini MRF, processing costs can be as low as $45 per ton, as compared to $80 -$120 per ton in a single stream MRF.  The new generation of curb sort trucks can collect source separated organic materials from households for composting and/or digestion, too.

These ‘clean stream’ materials go to the front of the line for marketing materials.  Non-recyclable items are left in the bin for the households to see what is not recyclable. This means the end of ‘wishcycling’ — placing something in the recycle bin that you want to be recycled— and a drastic reduction in contamination. Coupled with appropriate community engagement and education measures, no better educational medium exists.

+ Repair and Reuse

“Repair and reuse are the highest forms of recycling as they keep already made products in circulation”, says Dan Knapp, owner of Urban Ore, Inc., a materials recycling company in Berkeley, CA.    Reusable and repairable items make up only from 2-5 percent of the waste stream, but they are valued at $500/ton. These forms of upstream recycling are job and skill intensive. And, reuse and repair efforts pay sales tax. Resale operations across the US are reporting enormous growth in sales since the pandemic started. Urban Ore recently paid over $300,000 in sales tax. The most ever.  Same with Community Fork Lift in Hyattsville, MD where profits grew 34% in 2021. A city-sponsored Reuse Center, an old warehouse, school or abandoned mall, could create a network of repair industries in Baltimore. In Eugene, OR, Saint Vincent De Paul earns $1 million annually from its sale of used and repaired products, including appliances, computers, furniture and mattresses. Reuse and repair are being further expanded under new state ‘Right to Repair’ Laws.

Baltimore Next Steps

The know how, technology and business opportunities are available for rapid transformation- from a run of the mill urban recycling program, with little impact on Baltimore city, into a new system with vibrant job and local wealth production through the added value of raw materials and used items.  In this new configuration, Baltimore’s $80 million DPW budget is not a disposal system but an economic engine, as in China, feeding local and regional factories with clean materials for clean production—using recycled materials saves water and energy, reduces air emissions and reduces the city’s climate footprint all in one while generating good, clean jobs for and in community.

A new recycling collection approach and arrangement does even more. Recycling is at the cross roads of essential services and depurate need. City recycling jobs are unionized and a strong need exists for more of these good, healthy, safe family sustaining positions. Reuse practices can further dramatically reduce recidivism. Humanim had a zero-recidivism rate for over three years in its deconstruction-training program. The Second Chance non-profit recycles people as well as building materials. Formerly marginalized community members are now engaged, empowered productive taxpayers and residents. Reusing building materials reduces the cost of hushing, while individuals acquire new skills. Networks of curb swaps, repair cafes, community tool libraries or tool lending programs and varied fix it days or build events are further emerging.   All of the above-named activities increase recycling and reuse, while adding value to the city’s materials and further developing skills for residents. More recycling means more workers, higher wages, new small businesses and profits added to the regional tax base.

Furthermore, composting is directly tied to local food production and sustainable waste systems. The Compost for Community Initiative with The Institute for Local Self- Reliance developed the Hierarchy to Reduce Waste and Grow Community, emphasizing local small-scale composting as a preferred option when compared to larger scale, regional compost solutions.  There are at least 12 confirmed sites in Baltimore’s Community Composting Network with hundreds of additional sites across the city that compost, according to Clean Air Baltimoreorganizer and researcher Steph Compton.

City administrative and logistical support can help deepen the impact on communities, such as further funding organizations like the Filbert Street Garden in Curtis Bay, an important community environmental, educational and cultural center institution growing trees, animals and flowers.

The city could provide a ‘shared fee ’for every ton diverted from the waste stream to these community composting operations based on the savings that the city accrues when tons of materials are diverted from the waste stream. Such a shared savings program could pay composters $50-$100 per ton based on the actual cost savings to the city for collection and disposal.

Baltimore’s Fair Development Plan for Zero Waste, A Just Transition

Shashawnda Campbell, Destiny Watford and other Benjamin Franklin High School youth environmental justice leaders successfully organized against a planned 4,000 ton per day garbage incinerator project in their South Baltimore communityin 2016.  Leaders with The South Baltimore Community Land Trust (SBCLT) sustained ongoing regional outreach, organizational and advocacy efforts, publishing Baltimore’s Fair Development Plan for Zero Waste in February 2020 with the Institute for Local Self Reliance and Zero Waste Associates.

Under then City Council President Scott’s leadership,  Baltimore City Council passed a resolution in the Spring of 2020 calling on the Mayor, Board of Estimates and relevant City agencies to formally acknowledge and move forward in implementing the Fair Development for Zero Waste,   Though the city has yet to fully engage with the plan since, Mayor Scott and city leadership can still take advantage of this unique opportunity to join communities, organizations and institutions, working in alignment with a variety of companies to design and advance assorted Zero Waste initiatives.

The Fair Development Plan reflects the informed opinion of community members in frontline, environmental justice and community development organizations. As workers and residents near South Baltimore’s various industrial facilities continue to incur toxic exposures to assorted environmental hazards, SBCLT and their partners remain committed to creating healthier, safer options for impacted employees through a just transition for workers. The Fair Development Plan needs to get a full hearing.  A commitment to invest in this plan is needed to reap significant benefits to the city.

SBCLT Youth Leader Outreach

As the covid-19 pandemic continued to shift the world throughout 2020 and 2021, SBCLT Environmental Justice Coordinator Shashawnda Campbell advanced a virtual Zero Waste ‘train the trainer’ course as DPW established a limited Food Waste Drop-off Pilot Program, an “essential and necessary [step] to propel Baltimore towards a path of Zero Waste” according to Mayor Brandon Scott.  Youth Zero Waste outreach specialist and social enterprise leaders Carlos Sanchez, Taysia Thompson, and Terriq Thompson developed a presentation with other community partners in SBCLT’s citywide Zero Waste outreach coalition.  Information around Baltimore’s flawed waste management system and it’s impacts on resident’s health was shared with community associations and assorted stakeholders across the cityand Baltimore region.  Steps or solutions residents and neighborhoods could take to advance Zero Waste efforts were presented and developed.  Specifically, the SBCLT youth leader’s placed focus on local compost solutions to reduce the quantity of organics entering the waste stream.

The SBCLT maintains their ongoing youth leadership while the Zero Waste outreach coalition has developed and continued intentional partnerships with assorted stakeholders.  The SBCLT has been able to meet residents where they are and engage on relevant levels of Zero Waste infrastructure.  For instance, the Village of Violetville Association was supported in their neighborhood’s desire to set up a community compost drop off center serviced by regional private haulers.  After Board member Telethia Moseley and community leader Nikomar Moseley constructed the compost station, residents are now able to drop their fruit or vegetable scraps, egg shells, grains, bread, pasta, coffee grounds and tea bags in the neighborhoods compost station while also tracking total organic tonnage diverted through a scannable QR code.

Ashley Esposito, Violetville Board Member and Zero Waste community leader, further shared the group’s aims to develop a community engagement campaign specifically educating “neighbors who know nothing about composting or Zero Waste, sharing resources that currently exist in the city while developing a media campaign with easily digestible information and graphics.”

Following the initial outreach and education orchestrated through the SBCLT youth organizers, additional community associations, gardens, businesses, non-profit organizations and medical systems in South and Southwest Baltimore are further coordinating, developing and advancing assorted types of composting and Zero Waste management now.  The Baltimore Compost Collectivefurther serves households and businesses across the region and in South Baltimore.  Additional companies and organizations working on organic materials in Baltimore include 4mycity and private haulers like Compost Cab, Compost Crew, and Veterans Compost.

There is further consensus between City government leaders, City agencies, SBCLT and frontline leading community organizations and other stakeholders, on the importance of genuine community engagement and education when advancing equitable Zero Waste infrastructure.  A key feature of a proposed Zero Waste Recovery Park in South Baltimore would include infrastructure for educational programs, including compost demonstrations, reuse yards or remanufacturing amongst other options.  The need for expansive and appropriate community engagement was outlined in Baltimore’s Fair Development Plan and specifically noted by city liaisons in recent 2022 Zero Waste working group meetings.  There is a missed opportunity to publicly highlight and report on the community engagement efforts and works that city agencies and leadership are already advancing with the SBCLT and their partners around a more sustainable and equitable ZW future.

Zero Waste Committee

The Baltimore City Council was contemplating the creation of a Zero Waste Commission.  While such commission efforts have proven successful elsewhere, the SBCLT, their Zero Waste allies and some in positions of city government are calling for the creation of a unique, ad hoc Zero Waste committee in agreement on fair development principles driving Zero Waste infrastructure centered in South Baltimore.  The co-equal, collaborating Zero Waste vehicle with City, Community and Institutions could be called for through a Mayoral Executive order or other relevant avenue, like an institutional sign on pledge calling for co-equal collaboration, memorialized through a mechanism like an MOU for instance.  This committee would have legislative and public accountability through regular reporting, open meetings discussing progress, breakthroughs and challenges on Zero Waste projects while further advancing policy interventions with City Council.    The SBCLT specifically outlines the following 5 minimum community standards during the planning and advancement of Zero Waste infrastructure, beginning with the creation of a 64-acre site in Curtis Bay:

  1. Clean, safe, and cost-effective operations
  2. A community benefits agreement
  3. A local hiring commitment
  4. A labor peace agreement
  5. Community representation in facility governance

Austin, TX serves as an example of what a successful, appropriate, Zero Waste city council commission can look like; important lessons can be gleamed. In 1987, the City Council followed upon its unprecedented decision to cancel a garbage incinerator, already under construction and to invest in recycling, composting and reuse.  The investment returns have been $1.1 billion in economic growth and 6,300 new jobs for Austin.  Imagine what this Zero Waste buy in for Baltimore could look like?

Austin then changed the name of its Department of Public Works to the Department of Resource Recovery; prepared a Zero Waste Business Plan and commissioned the construction of a Resource Recovery Park for composting, recycling or reuse companies. Austin is now at a 45 percent recycling rate and striving for much higher goals.

Baltimore is now primed to take the same steps, as did Austin and many other cities. Invest in Zero Waste, co-equal community co-development and an efficient local supply chain of materials to industry and agriculture. The Recycling Partnership has provided the carts through a grant to the DPW. Federal money is available to complete the investments needed for collection and processing equipment. The private sector wants to partner. The hardest decision in recycling Neil Seldman has learned is making the first initial decision to recycle; once made, common sense and entrepreneurialism takeover. The lesson carries over to recycling education for youth. Study recycling and you will never be unemployed.


Neil Seldman, Directs the Waste to Wealth Initiative (WtW) at ILSR. Toby Harris is a contract researcher for WtW and SBCLT Zero Waste ‘train the trainer’ graduate in Baltimore. ILSR advises cities, community and civic organizations and small businesses on Zero Waste and economic efficiency. ILSR worked on the Baltimore Fair Development Zero Waste Plan and was advisor to City Council members, community and business leaders in Austin, TX that led to the city’s Zero Waste program.

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Neil Seldman

Neil Seldman, Ph.D, directs the Waste to Wealth Initiative. He specializes in helping cities and businesses recover increasing amounts of materials from the waste stream and add value to the local economy through new processing and manufacturing facilities. He is a co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

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Toby Harris

Toby Harris is a Baltimore based researcher with ILSR’s Waste to Wealth Initiative. They remain involved with SBCLT’s youth-led outreach and implementation efforts grounding Baltimore’s Fair Development Plan for Zero Waste. Toby has a Master’s in Environmental Health & Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. Research on national recycling and reuse trends are also central to Toby’s works.