State and federal agencies mandate trash cleanup in Baltimore

This week the US Environmental Protection Agency gave final approval to the state’s mandate that Baltimore City and Baltimore County clean up trash that makes its way to the Baltimore Harbor. The Harbor (officially the Middle and Northwest Branches of the Patapsco River, including Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls) was declared impaired by trash under the Clean Water Act in 2008, and local jurisdictions are now on the hook to remove nearly 50,000 pounds of trash from the watershed annually. They’ll have five years to ramp up to that level before the plan will be reviewed, and potentially face financial penalties if they can’t comply.

Both the City and County have long recognized the problem of trash pollution, and the environmental and public costs of it. In anticipation of this mandate, both jurisdictions have recently stepped up street sweeping dramatically. They are also exploring ways to change public behavior to prevent litter in the first place, from encouraging sustainable practices in homes and businesses, to increased enforcement, to legislation to control commonly littered items.

As Halle VanDerGaag, Blue Water Baltimore executive director (and Trash Free Maryland board member) told CBS Baltimore, “We’ve all been talking about cleaning up trash, but this really takes it from a voluntary effort to a mandatory one.”

Trash Free Maryland submitted comments when the regulations were drafted. Known as a Total Maximum Daily Load, these regulations stipulate cleanup requirements for numerous water pollutants. In this area, the most famous TMDL is an umbrella set of regulations for the Chesapeake Bay, to reduce the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment. Normally TMDLs set a limit for the maximum amount of the pollutant allowable in the water (hence the name Total Maximum Daily Load). Trash is relatively new in the regulatory world, with the Harbor TMDL just the third in the country (the Los Angeles River and Anacostia River being the other two).

Unlike the Bay TMDL, the Harbor and Anacostia TMDLs both scrap the idea of a maximum load and instead require removal of a specified amount of trash, based on estimates of the amount of trash polluting the water. While we’re happy to have something to mandate cleanup, the removal approach is troubling for a few reasons:

– It assumes the baseline estimates are accurate.
– It doesn’t factor in population growth, or a population that generates more trash over time.
– It incentivizes cleanup and engineered physical structures, which cost more than prevention.
– It disincentives prevention–calculating the weight of trash pollution prevented by, for example, an outreach campaign is at best an estimate.
– Measuring success is much easier for downstream jurisdictions (where capture is easier) than upstream ones (where trash is more dispersed).

The Harbor TMDL document does include an appendix to guide jurisdictions in developing their plans to meet the requirements, including suggestions for how to incorporate source reduction and other prevention activities. This appendix is important, and we’re glad the Maryland Department of Environment heard our and our partners’ comments.

After all, as the authors say on page 44, “the best way to reduce trash going into the Harbor is to persuade residents not to throw it onto streets and sidewalks in the first place.”

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