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Ahead on recycling, this Maryland suburb is grappling with other types of trash

Trucks drop off garbage at the Montgomery County Resource Recovery Facility in rural Dickerson, where it will be incinerated. (Robb Hill/For The Washington Post)
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When Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) was elected last year, he vowed to close down the county’s trash incinerator — much to the delight of community and environmental groups, which had been working toward that goal for years.

But now that he’s in office, a vexing question remains: What should be done with the roughly 1,800 tons of trash Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction sends to its incinerator every day?

An anti-incinerator community group argues for transporting the garbage to a landfill, which it sees as a less environmentally hazardous option while Montgomery works to reduce the overall amount of trash it produces in the long term.

Elrich is leery of the fiscal and environmental cost of sending all that trash to a landfill. He says he does not want to close the incinerator — which reduces the volume of waste by about two-thirds — until the amount being tossed out by the county comes way down.

“I need a solution that doesn’t make the environment worse,” he said.

It’s not just Montgomery wrestling with this question. Municipalities are increasingly moving away from incineration and landfilling, instead focusing on reducing trash before it becomes, well, trash, said Eric Goldstein, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

Landfills produce methane, a harmful greenhouse gas, in addition to potentially contaminating groundwater. At the same time, incinerators can produce air pollution, are expensive to run and devour resources such as paper and plastic that otherwise could be recycled, he said. Instead, communities are looking toward prevention — specifically, recycling or composting.

“If you say incinerators versus landfills, it is a false choice — they’re both problematic,” Goldstein said. “The choice these days [is] . . . how do we handle our waste in a more sustainable way to make use of valuable commodities and reduce the amount of trash we’re generating in the first place?”

Montgomery already is ahead of the game when it comes to reducing trash volume. About 60 percent of the county’s waste is recycled or composted, compared with a national average of about 35 percent.

That still leaves a copious amount of food scraps, dirty diapers, plastic film and other detritus of daily life, all of which is sent by rail to the Montgomery County Resource Recovery Facility in rural Dickerson, which sits next to a coal-fired power plant in the county’s agricultural reserve.

The fires that burn the trash also power steam turbines that produce enough electricity for about 40,000 homes, which makes the incinerator a “waste-to-energy” facility. The leftover ash is sent to landfills.

Lauren Greenberger, president of the Sugarloaf Citizens’ Association in Dickerson, said her group is planning to work with Elrich and hopes to get him to switch to a landfill as quickly as possible.

The left-leaning county executive, who served three terms on the council before landing the top job, is “our best shot,” Greenberger said. “I’m not saying I think landfills are really a wonderful thing. I’m looking at what’s least hazardous for my health, my family’s health and greenhouse gases in the world.”

Paul Gilman, chief sustainability officer and senior vice president of Covanta, the New Jersey-based company that operates Montgomery’s incinerator, said some groups — including Greenberger’s — may have an outdated view of incinerators.

Modern facilities have scrubbers and other measures to reduce the amount of pollution that is emitted into the air, and Gilman pointed to studies showing no discernible health effects from the plants.

“I know folks find it hard to understand how a combustion-based approach to energy recovery could be viewed as either renewable or as a clean-energy source, but people who have thought as a matter of policy about the renewability have certainly put the technology in that category,” Gilman said.

Greenberger said even scrubbers and other protective provisions don’t stop the production of mercury and dioxins from the plant.

Other communities have successfully taken aim at their incinerators. The operator of Detroit’s waste-to-energy incinerator announced in March that it was closing that facility, which had been the source of complaints about odors and pollutants.

Baltimore’s city council this year passed legislation that would require the city’s two incinerators — one burns municipal waste, the other medical waste — to dramatically reduce the air pollution they emit. Last month, the owners of the incinerators sued the city over the measure.

The Maryland General Assembly grappled with whether burning trash for energy was “green” in its last session, ultimately deciding that waste-to-energy plants should be eligible for the same subsidies as wind or solar operation. Environmental groups called the provision an “abhorrent loophole” in the state’s clean-energy bill.

In Montgomery, figuring out how to divert more garbage before it reaches the incinerator is the responsibility of Adam Ortiz, the newly appointed director of the county’s Department of Environmental Protection.

“We can’t have a meaningful conversation about alternatives when we’re creating so much trash,” said Ortiz, who most recently was director of the environment department in Prince George’s County, where he won plaudits for boosting composting and other green programs.

Among the most possible candidates for diversion is food waste, which makes up about a third of the county’s garbage. Montgomery County already composts yard waste but does not have a facility to do the same with food scraps. Ortiz said he is looking at creating a composting program in Montgomery, starting with the commercial sector.

Modernizing the county’s Shady Grove recycling facility so it can accept more recycling, and process it faster, would also help, he said. The facility cannot handle the amount of recycling the county produces now, so upgrading it — such as with optical machines that can sort items more quickly — will be key.

“We’re at sort of a point in the county’s waste-stream evolution that the systems that we had in place for decades are in dire need of an upgrade,” Ortiz said.

Such changes will take time — but Elrich may have more time to take action on the incinerator than he originally expected.

As a candidate, he had talked about moving away from incineration in 2022, at the end of his first term as executive.

But in November, after the election and weeks before Elrich took office, then-County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), directed the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority, which owns the incinerator on behalf of the county, to extend the contract with the operator, Covanta, through 2026. The authority says the county can get out of the contract anytime.

“If I can’t do it by 2022, then 2026 gives me four more years,” Elrich said. “I’m not going to do a bad solution in ’22 just to say I did it in ’22. I would rather be on a path to a good solution. If it’s a year or two or three years later, I can live with it. As long as it’s a better solution than what we’re doing now.”

Greenberger said she is still ready to work with Elrich, even if she disagrees about the timing.

“At this point, I’m not ready to set up a protest outside his office,” she said. “I want to respond to his concerns and come up with reasonable answers. And if he then is still being adamant about this, and there’s something behind it that I don’t understand, then we get mad at him.”

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