Baltimore Is Poised to Put a Major Dent in Its Food Waste Stream

The city has developed a bold new food waste management and recovery strategy to protect residents from harmful air pollution, boost its economy, and help feed those most in need.

Baltimore spends $10 million to burn its food scraps every year. A bold new plan aims to reduce reliance on its big, dirty Wheelabrator incinerator, shown here.

Credit: Anthony Washington/

Along Interstate 95 and adjacent to Baltimore’s sports stadiums is a towering, iconic white smokestack emblazoned with the city’s name. Highway travelers and ballpark visitors might not think much about it, but to residents of the surrounding Westport neighborhood, it’s a symbol of a long-borne burden.

The Wheelabrator incinerator, known as BRESCO, burns more than 700,000 tons of solid waste a year from Baltimore and nearby areas and contributes to $55 million a year in health problems. It is the city’s single largest polluter, emitting about 1,100 tons of nitrous oxide a year in addition to toxic chemicals like lead, mercury, and formaldehyde. While the predominantly African-American community of Westport bears the brunt of the health impacts—in a city where the rate of asthma hospitalization is almost triple the national average—these heavy costs also extend to places downwind.

A recent state proposal would require the incinerator to cut its nitrous oxide emissions by 200 tons a year, a goal Wheelabrator says it can achieve by optimizing its existing control systems (as opposed to installing modern pollution-control technologies, as other facilities have done). It would be a positive development, if a relatively minor reduction, but local public health and sustainability advocates warn that Maryland’s largest city must simultaneously address the root cause of the problem: the sheer volume of waste the facility processes.

“We’re spending $10 million to burn our food scraps every year,” says Marvin Hayes, program director of the Baltimore Compost Collective, a community-run food scrap pickup and composting service that employs local youths. He and dozens of other sustainability advocates from across Baltimore—including residents, businesses, and city agencies—recently came together with the Office of Sustainability to develop a new food waste management and recovery strategy for their city. “It wouldn’t take $10 million to compost,” adds Hayes, “and it would benefit the earth, benefit the city, and move us toward zero waste.” Hayes believes education about the problem of food waste and the benefits of compost could be transformative for Baltimore, and he applauds the new plan’s inclusion of composting as one of several ways to achieve its goal.

In September, Baltimore teamed up with NRDC to help put this strategy into action through the Food Matters pilot food waste management project. A bold initiative supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, the project is also taking off in Denver, which has a goal of reducing the volume of food waste in residential garbage collection by 57 percent citywide by 2030. Meanwhile, in Baltimore—which already lags behind much of the country on diverting trash from its waste stream—officials hope to reduce commercial food waste by 50 percent and residential food waste by 80 percent by 2040. By boosting food donations, expanding composting programs and capabilities, and educating the public on how to waste less food at home, the city hopes to lessen its incinerator reliance while simultaneously helping residents who are most in need.

“Though many cities have taken action to better understand the scope of residential food waste in their communities—an essential starting point to creating lasting change—we know there’s more work to be done,” says Devon Klatell, global food strategy lead and senior associate director at the Rockefeller Foundation. “Cities like Baltimore can take a leadership role, charting a path for others to follow in reducing their own food waste and helping their residents live healthier, more productive lives.”

Across the United States, we waste 40 percent of our food. NRDC staff attorney Margaret Brown says that these city-focused partnerships are an important part of the solution. “Cities are incredibly motivated actors on food waste as they face the dual challenges of handling and paying to discard waste, as well as improving food security for residents. We think if a few cities can adopt models that work, other cities will follow.”

Brown notes that the food insecurity rate in Baltimore is more than 23 percent, almost twice the national average of about 12 percent. About a quarter of its residents live in an area without easy access to a supermarket, as Baltimore’s mayor Catherine Pugh noted during the announcement of the partnership. “For too many of our neighborhoods, healthy and affordable food is still out of their reach,” she said.

Pugh and other city officials see local composting as a way to uplift some of these underserved areas. For example, as part of its new strategy, Baltimore hopes to create a local composting facility. A 2013 survey by the non-profit Institute for Local Self-Reliance found that such an initiative could support as many as 1,400 jobs, double the number that landfilling provides, and four times as many as incineration. Composting helps return nutrients to the soil, which can in turn improve soil quality and protect local watersheds by filtering out urban stormwater pollutants. It also mitigates climate impacts by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from incinerators and local landfills.

The Food Matters partnership with NRDC will grant Baltimore needed support by providing expert guidance and the funding for a full-time project manager for two years to oversee the execution of a number of key food waste reduction strategies. The initiative will be a welcome addition to efforts by the city’s many other organizations, institutions, and agencies already hard at work to promote composting and food recovery.

Among those key players is the Baltimore Compost Collective, which has made a strong impact over the past two years, under Hayes’s leadership, on the Curtis Bay community where it is based. Local youths run the food-scrap collection operation out of the Filbert Street Garden and currently pick up food waste from 41 customers. After they compost it at the garden, they offer the so-called “black gold” to area residents, who can use the soil to grow their own food in the garden’s raised beds. Soon, Hayes and his team hope to add a food-scrap drop-off program. Hayes proudly describes Filbert Street Garden as a peaceful oasis, where goats, chickens, and bees are thriving and where people can learn and get their hands dirty in the middle of a high-crime and food-insecure area.

“Not only can we transform food scraps into soil, but we can give opportunities for young people to do entrepreneurial work,” says Hayes, who sees the garden as a model for what can be achieved on a larger scale. “Collectively, we can move Baltimore toward zero waste.”

Johns Hopkins University is another local institution working toward this goal, operating a food waste reduction and composting program since 2010. Recycling specialist Leana Houser details the eight-year evolution from back-of-the-house food waste collection in the university’s main dining hall to the installation of campus-wide bins and a requirement that all disposable food containers and utensils distributed on campus be compostable. The university also performs regular waste audits, partners with several dozen green caterers that strive for zero waste, and recently implemented a free food alert program so that food doesn’t go to waste in the first place. The main campus has seen a dramatic increase in composting: In 2010 it diverted 200 tons of food from the trash, or about 17 tons per month; this past October, students and staff composted nearly 49 tons.

Echoing Hayes, Houser says she hopes Johns Hopkins’s success can be replicated on a citywide scale. But she warns that it will be nearly impossible until Baltimore builds more municipal composting facilities. “We have a very strong road map for schools, retailers, and large institutions to take the steps forward,” Houser says, “but it’s a matter of political will, staff, and funding.”

The Baltimore Convention Center, a publicly funded hall that welcomes about a half-million visitors per year, has also made a significant commitment to reducing food waste and promoting food recovery. Ever since the convention center teamed up with the World Wildlife Fund to help see these goals through, they’ve been an important mission for its deputy director, Mac Campbell. “I realized it’s not just a sustainability platform, but really about our overall corporate responsibility,” he says.

In addition to paying attention to reducing food waste in its operations, especially through its exclusive catering service, the convention center has partnered with a local farm to facilitate its composting. Also, building on a commitment to donate shelf-stable food to the Maryland Food Bank, Campbell and his team have taken advantage of online platforms to alert the local community, in real time, about leftover prepared food that can be picked up for free. Calling these actions “altruistic sustainability,” he recognizes the convention center’s unique position to become a thought leader on the issue and to give back to the local community. “The convention center primarily hosts folks from out of town, so we really want to drive home why we matter to the local Baltimore resident,” he says.

These initiatives have built a strong foundation in Baltimore for the new partnership between the city and NRDC to succeed. As Yvette Cabrera, NRDC’s Food Matters Project manager, points out, addressing food waste at a city scale requires engaging business and institutions on food waste reduction. And since many Baltimore-based organizations already share that commitment, she says, “now it’s about amplifying it across the rest of the city and setting others up with the proper infrastructure and systems in order to do so.”

The energy is certainly there. “People are really excited about what’s going on,” says Anne Draddy of Baltimore’s Office of Sustainability, who will oversee the initiative and serve as NRDC’s main liaison for the partnership. “They’re wanting government to step up—it’s one of the good things government can do. We can convene people and push further along. People here are ready for that.”

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