Maryland's 'zero waste' plan has been scrapped — and maybe that's OK
Maryland's "zero waste" plan came to an unceremonious end last week, and so far, even avowed "zero waste" supporters don't seem to mind.
Governor Larry Hogan's decision to repeal the 2015 "zero waste" executive order put in place by his predecessor, Martin O’Malley, came as a surprise. An editorial in The Baltimore Sun called it "odd." Though both industry and environmental groups see things they like in Hogan's new version. Perhaps, they say, Maryland can actually make more progress without the old "zero waste" plan after all.
Hogan made the announcement during a speech at the Maryland Municipal League's summer conference on June 27. After describing O'Malley's plan as a usurpation of local government authority, Hogan offered a brief rationale for the decision.
"...Earlier today, I signed an executive order to repeal that burdensome regulation, which had created overflowing landfills and unnecessary hardships for local governments," Hogan said in a video posted from the event. "We're replacing that last-minute, ill-conceived and poorly devised policy with a common sense, balanced approach to managing waste in Maryland which lifts that state mandate on permitting and re-configures recycling rates to realistic, reasonable and achievable levels."
"We're replacing that last-minute, ill-conceived and poorly devised policy with a common sense, balanced approach to managing waste in Maryland..."
Governor of Maryland
Soon after, Hogan's office released a five-page executive order laying out details for a new "Waste Reduction and Resource Recovery Plan." At first glance, it includes many of the same words as any other modern waste strategy — sustainable materials management, source reduction, reuse, stakeholder consultation, data measurement, inter-agency cooperation, job creation, and anaerobic digestion, among others. Unlike O'Malley's plan, it doesn't include any dates, diversion rate targets or mention of internal recycling priorities for state government.
This more measured approach sat well with Gary Liss, vice president of Zero Waste USA and a respected arbiter of the definition guidelines outlined by the Zero Waste International Alliance.
"I can certainly see why he could perceive that the 'zero waste' plan was unrealistic and ironically, because it used the wrong term, we don't know where it really stood on real 'zero waste,' " said Liss. "So I'd rather them do all the pieces of 'zero waste,' like is embodied in this executive order, than adopt a goal that's the wrong goal."
Brenda Platt, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) and a long-time fixture in Maryland's waste world, felt the same.
"Hogan's not calling his new plan "zero waste,' which it's not, but it certainly has all of the elements and features of a 'zero waste' plan," she said. "We like his emphasis on linking recycling growth with recycling development and jobs."
Normally, a Republican tossing out a signature environmental initiative from a prior Democratic governor wouldn't go over this well. And while Hogan's plan has already inspired some talk of a Democratic response in the state legislature, there has been even more talk about why O'Malley's plan was unpopular among different constituencies in the first place.
Waste-to-energy drama and local authority
O'Malley's executive order was issued barely a week before he left office in January 2015, though emails shared with Waste Dive show that Maryland's Department of the Environment (MDE) released a draft of the plan for public comment as early as April 2014. Multiple meetings led up to a 73-page final draft released that December.
Rising per capita waste generation rates, and diversion goals set in Maryland's 2009 Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act, were referenced as some of the main factors. The plan called for Maryland to achieve an "overall recycling goal" of 80% and an "overall waste diversion goal" of 85% by 2040. It also included a long list of benchmark goals, policy proposals and more specific directives. One of the more notable changes was an end to any permit approval for future landfill capacity.
The disqualifying point for many in the environmental community was MDE's support for utilizing energy recovery, specifically waste-to-energy (WTE) combustion. The plan made it clear this should only take place after "maximum removal of recyclables," but still included multiple passages on the benefits of WTE as opposed to landfills.
O'Malley's WTE support had drawn flack from environmental groups for years and many saw this as another betrayal of true "zero waste" principles. That same sentiment is said to have played a role in the recent cancelations of separate WTE projects in Frederick County and Baltimore's Curtis Bay neighborhood. Activists have since turned their attention to a facility operated by Wheelabrator in Baltimore and another operated by Covanta in Montgomery County.
These WTE concerns were expressed in multiple letters to MDE around the release of O'Malley's plans and Caroline Eader, founder of a non-profit called Zero Waste for Zero Loss, was among the most vociferous critics. Based on what she has seen so far, Hogan’s plan already looks better.
"Maryland was really on the path to become the incinerator capital of the East Coast," said Eader. "I think this actually gets rid of the pro-incinerator spin that the 'zero waste' plan had."
Others have also read Hogan's plan as taking a neutral stance on WTE, while some see lines calling for MDE "to research and promote methods of recovering energy from waste, including anaerobic digestion" as tacit support.
"Maryland was really on the path to become the incinerator capital of the East Coast."
Founder, Zero Waste for Zero Loss
MDE's communications office did not reply to a request for clarification about the Hogan administration's stance on WTE, and it doesn't appear to have been a driving factor in the new plan.
According to Hogan's speech, restrictions on local authority and landfill capacity were the main problems. When asked for examples, MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles offered the following response in an emailed statement.
"We support zero waste but not zero collaboration. The new executive order lays out a path for even better results and a greater emphasis on sustainable materials management and beneficial reuse. That means aggressive but achievable goals by coordinating with local decision makers, businesses, and environmentalists — rethinking our approach so we can turn waste into wealth and boost our recycling rates like never before."
According to a January 2017 MDE report, the state had an estimated 31 years of landfill capacity remaining at the time. The vast majority of these sites are county-operated.
"I have not heard anybody concerned about lack of county control," said Eader. "I think in Hogan talking about local control he was more making a political statement than reality."
A recent post on the Maryland Association of Counties' website confirms that the landfill ban was not a current regulatory priority for counties. The post does say that multiple counties had raised concerns to the Hogan administration about how this might affect long-term planning options.
Steve Changaris, northeast regional manager for the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA), said capacity has not been a common concern among his members, though they do view Hogan’s plan as a more positive approach.
"We think it was a great move and it will be helpful to the citizens and businesses of Maryland in the long run. We don’t think there's any environmental downside," he said.
According to Changaris, Maryland has one of the more effective regulatory structures for waste issues and while few would argue with the idea of diversion, many local governments want the ability to do it on their own terms.
"You have to keep all your options on the table. If we want to move away from disposal then let's start putting the plans in place to get us there. Doing it arbitrarily or doing it as a parting order of an outgoing governor just doesn't have the right feel," said Changaris.
New action from the new plan and Democratic pushback
Despite misgivings about O'Malley's WTE support, his date-specific targets were popular among environmental groups who say measurable progress will still be important.
"Hogan's [plan] is obviously a real step backward in that," said ILSR's Platt on dropping the specific dates from O'Malley’s plan. "I think it's fine to revisit the goals and come up with realistic targets, but we're a strong supporter of mandatory goals."
Liss agreed that "dates are powerful tools," though noted that it's not uncommon for successful programs to start with voluntary goals before evolving. He also said this is an example of "why it's valuable to have a grassroots support network" that can carry on work after political transitions. Aside from California and Minnesota, few government waste diversion plans have been codified as binding law at the state or local level.
Groups such as ILSR can be expected to continue playing a key role in that ongoing work with a focus on creating economic opportunity through more recycling and composting. They were leading supporters of two laws recently signed by Hogan that require a study of state organics processing capacity and new guidelines on compostable product labeling. ILSR has also been working with officials in Baltimore to help double the city's recycling rate.
The latest MDE information shows Maryland had a 43.5% diversion rate in 2014 and there has already been talk of using existing state directives to increase that. A late 2015 climate update from MDE cited the same "zero waste" goals as O'Malley's plan and some believe this means they're still part of state law. Since then, Hogan signed a new 2016 Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act that included many of the same overall 2030 climate goals and it's not immediately clear whether the original "zero waste" targets made the cut.
Delegate Shane Robinson, lead sponsor of the two new organics laws, told Waste Dive he will make this a priority for the 2018 legislative session. Robinson feels that the "zero waste" repeal doesn't align with ongoing state environmental progress in areas such as renewable energy and sends a "bad message" to businesses interested in sustainability. Though he also recognized that little had happened to reinforce O'Malley's plan since it came out in 2015.
"In that sense it's maybe an opportunity to be in a place that's better than we were under O'Malley's executive order," said Robinson of Hogan's new order. "Now he has lit a little fire under the Democrats, so I bet there will be a piece of legislation."
As for the former governor at the center of all this, he has yet to offer any public response to one of his last acts getting scrapped. Waste Dive could not reach O'Malley for comment through his political action committee or via Twitter.
Follow Cole Rosengren on Twitter