Baltimore City, long impacted by heavily littered streets and waterways, polluted air, and contaminated soils, is bit by bit cleaning up and rejuvenating its community. Baltimore has banned single-use plastic checkout bags and polystyrene foam food containers. It’s set up a food scrap drop-off program, and it’s rolled out curbside recycling throughout the city, improving on a service that was woefully lagging through the years. Now the city plans to commission a solar-powered composting facility that will divert 12,000 tons of organics a year, with $4 million in federal funding.
Still, there’s plenty more work to do, and several grassroots groups have stepped up to tackle some of it. Each has its own focus. A small but growing compost operation goes door to door collecting food scraps on e-bikes, founded by a homegrown West Baltimorean. A neighboring start up is forming cooperatives to transition underserved communities to a zero-waste management structure while creating jobs. And an innovative reuse program has sprung from the ground, run by a veteran environmentalist with help from Johns Hopkins University students.
These and other climate activists each have their own, separate projects, but they all align on one focal point, which drives their work: fighting Baltimore’s waste combustion facility.
Dante Swinton launched nonprofit Our Zero Waste Future after spending eight years pushing to shutter the mass burn facility, owned by WIN Waste (formerly Wheelabrator). He still plays a role in trying to bring the job to the finish line. WIN’s contract runs through 2031, though the city can end it sooner if it chooses.
But the birth of Our Zero Waste Future marks an expanded focus for Swinton: educating communities on the benefits of a zero-waste economy and developing local cooperatives to capitalize on material recovery.
The first project is weeks away from lift off and will take place in the South Baltimore neighborhood of Cherry Hill where folks will be invited to help grow new businesses around this circular economy model.
“We are aiming for long-term impact by developing zero-waste leaders. Residents will be co-owners who collect materials for reuse, develop new products, or sell them into secondary markets,” Swinton says.
He hopes to help lessen the consequences of hard realities in his city.
Cherry Hill residents and their neighbors in surrounding communities live on average to the age of 69 or 70— years below the national life expectancy and years below that of North Baltimoreans, he says. And they have among the highest asthma rates in the country.
He calls out what he believes are meaningful contributors to the problems: lacking access to healthy foods, exposure to truck traffic and other pollutants—with the incinerator being the city’s largest source of air pollution and a nearby chemical company presenting as another top offender.
“These are all components of environmental justice that your [more advantaged] Roland Park or Loyola communities in Northern Baltimore do not experience,” he says.
Empowering underserved communities to monetize materials rather than send them for combustion could be part of the fix in his eyes.
Swinton also teams with nonprofit Leave No Waste to shape policy pushing for deconstruction over demolition to salvage old building materials – a 300,000-ton-a year waste problem in Baltimore.
And he collects and cleans bottles from restaurants for reuse or to make glass artwork from broken pieces. Branded as GRASS Baltimore (Glass Recovery and Sustainable System), plans are to hire residents to divert some of the 18,000 tons of glass headed for incineration every year.
“Starve the incinerator. Feed the soil. Feed the community,” says Marvin Hayes, executive director for Baltimore Compost Collective Program.
He launched a drop-off program nine years ago, but today a team goes door to door picking up 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of organics weekly. Much of the compost made from it serves as a soil enhancer for a community garden in a food-insecure neighborhood with no nearby access to good nutrition.
Hayes’ ambitions extend beyond diverting and processing organics to grow food. He trains kids from a local high school on composting and coaches them to speak up about what they learn.
“We teach them about environmental justice and how to advocate for their community. They in turn teach their peers and residents about what happens to their trash when it gets to its final destination and its impact on the health of Baltimore City residents. And they introduce composting as an alternative to trash incineration,” he says.
Food scraps are collected in five-gallon buckets and brought to the garden on e-bikes. What can’t be processed there moves on to a compost site in Maryland’s Prince George’s County, at least for now. Hayes looks forward to the day when Baltimore is home to a larger facility to make more of its own “black gold,” the nutrient that gives compost its richness.
The Compost Collective has pushed for city drop off sites, helped create three-bin systems, and informed policy while staying fixed on involving the kids. Hayes is banking that this newer generation will keep the momentum going into the future.
“I want youth to use their imagination and be innovative, to move Baltimore City to anti-incineration and to curbside municipal compost so we can divert more material,” he says.
Steph Compton runs in some of the same circles as Hayes and Swinton. She owns Leave No Waste, the operation Swinton has done policy work with; supports his aspirations for Our Zero Waste Future by lending herself as a community organizer; and rails against incineration alongside Swinton, Hayes, and others.
Two focuses keep the Texas-born Baltimore transplant busiest lately. One is teaching event planners how to incorporate zero-waste practices and providing them resources and support.
A related pet project is encouraging businesses to move from single-use packaging to reusables. Compton does this work under the auspice of Baltimore Reduces Bring Your Own (BYO). Her proposition to business owners is that they invite their customers to bring in reusable food and beverage containers. She hands out stickers that they post in their front windows to showcase their commitment to shifting away from disposable plastics.
“Most litter on our streets is single-use food and beverage packaging. That was my inspiration to start Baltimore Reduces Bring Your Own. But for now, the concept is just a suggested practice,” she says.
“We need more [to move the needle]. We need policies and infrastructure to address problems around single-use packaging.”
She’s heard good ideas from city leadership, but they haven’t gone far to fund and implement them, the way she sees it.
“They have hosted meetings to get community feedback and are listening to constituents, but they have invested little in infrastructure,” she says.
Meanwhile, if and when what she and other advocates are driving for happens—the end of the WIN combustion facility—the city will have to be ready.
“We don’t want to push the can to the end of the line with the incineration contract and have no plans or investments in infrastructure to support our transition away from burning trash. We are doing as much as we can now. We don’t have time to wait.”