Beth Slaninka

Maryland is on its way to becoming a zero waste state. Tucked into its Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan released last week at the Maryland Climate Change Summit is the long-term goal of eliminating the need for landfills—a goal that could prevent between 2.8 million and 4.8 million metric tons of CO2– equivalent emissions from entering the atmosphere by 2020.

The summit, which I was fortunate enough to attend, was held to let environmentalists, scientists, state and local officials, and the public know how the state plans to meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25% below 2006 levels by 2020. Covering emissions-reducing actions such as increasing the state’s renewable portfolio standard, ramping up energy efficiency, and boosting public transportation usage, the plan also ranked zero waste as a major priority among these more “traditional” methods.

Yet, in some of the media coverage of the event, zero waste was largely left out. In reality, landfills are the third largest source of methane emissions in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And, while methane emissions don’t hang around in the atmosphere as long as CO2, their impact on climate change is more than 20 times greater over the course of 100 years.

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley confirmed these findings at the summit: “There is a lot of methane in our ozone that comes out of our landfills—that is the traditional way we used to live,” he said. “But in order to reach our goals we must come up with smarter, more innovative, more sustainable ways to deal with our waste.”

By working toward minimizing waste, Maryland joins a growing number of “zero waste communities” in the United States, Canada, and across the globe, along with corporations, such as Wal-Mart. Many of these areas have made progress to date; San Francisco has reported an 80% waste diversion rate so far. At the summit, Maryland announced an even higher target, with the goal to reduce 85% of the waste going to landfills and increase the recycling rate to 80% by 2030. Reaching these targets would mean doubling the current rates of both waste diversion and recycling in the state.

One potential method the state plans to pursue to reach these goals is using the state’s waste-to-energy plants as a solid waste management tool and to help offset carbon emissions from electricity produced by fossil fuels. While some advocates for zero waste argue that incinerating waste for energy produces nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, and other harmful pollutants, the state of Maryland believes that given impending population growth, it also needs to be realistic in its approach, and that waste-to-energy can be a stepping stone to longer-term goals, like universal recycling requirements.

Completely eliminating the need for landfills in Maryland may not be possible, but it’s an admirable goal to strive toward. Including a goal of zero waste in its Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan shows that Maryland is taking a truly comprehensive approach and exploring all options available when it comes to battling climate change.