CAPITOL HEIGHTS – Prince George’s County officials and environmental activists gathered at the county’s Materials Recycling Facility on April 11 to announce the details of the county’s Zero Waste Plan and to commemorate the county’s high rankings in waste diversion and residential recycling. “What we’re talking about today is not just about operations, it’s not […]
CAPITOL HEIGHTS – Prince George’s County officials and environmental activists gathered at the county’s Materials Recycling Facility on April 11 to announce the details of the county’s Zero Waste Plan and to commemorate the county’s high rankings in waste diversion and residential recycling.
“What we’re talking about today is not just about operations, it’s not just about staff, but it’s also about mindset,” said Adam Ortiz, director of the Prince George’s County Department of the Environment. “To see everything we do as interconnected, that every decision we make, whether it’s in the store, whether it’s in the kitchen, it has an impact on our environment.”
County Executive Rushern Baker, III said the stepS to develop a Zero Waste Plan, as well as other progress the county has made to be more environmentally friendly – such as the Styrofoam ban – has been the result of team efforts by the county government, nonprofits, communities and workers.
“What it’s meant for us is not only a better environment, cleaner air, better water quality, but also meant job opportunities,” Baker said. “Our job was to leave the county in a better position than when we found it. This is a department that has done this by leaps and bounds.”
The county is ranked first in the state in residential recycling and has been number one for three years in a row in the state of Maryland for waste diversion.
“Zero waste” means developing a plan so that as little waste as possible gets sent to a landfill.
Ortiz said about 75 percent of what ends up in the county landfill is divertible. Those materials could be recycled, composted or reused.
“From a government and a taxpayer standpoint, that’s a lot of viable resources we’re throwing in a pile of garbage,” Ortiz said. “So, any effort to divert some of that material, to be able to commodify it, sell it and bring value and resources back into the county is an exciting opportunity.”
Compostable materials, such as food waste, that sit in landfills can produce methane, which is classified as a greenhouse gas by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
“Zero waste is not an accident,” Ortiz said. “Zero waste is deliberate. It’s policies and operations, but it’s also a mindset.”
The Resource Recovery Master Plan, which builds on the Zero Waste Plan and will designate policy guidance and concrete steps forward, will be completed before July 1.
Members of the Prince George’s Sierra Club Group, which was instrumental in developing the plan, said this strategy requires rethinking what is considered “waste.”
“Zero waste is rethinking what you’re disposing of and taking responsibility as a user, producer, consumer, and business,” said Sydney Jacobs, an executive committee member with the Prince George’s Sierra Club Group. “It does require a mindset change and a paradigm shift.”
Ortiz noted that the staff reconsidered what they perceived of as “waste” so much that they renamed Waste Management Facility the Resource Recovery Facility.
Martha Ainsworth, the chair of the group, described the plan as a “menu of different options and programs that the county can undertake to achieve zero waste.”
Ainsworth and Jacobs are excited about the possibilities of implementing a plastic bag fee in the county and encouraging commercial recycling. The group helped conduct a study that demonstrated people living in nearby jurisdictions with small fees on plastic bags were more likely to carry reusable bags or not use any bags.
Waste diversion also opens the door to further job creation.
“We have to keep the workforce in mind at all times,” Ortiz said. “One of the great things about recycling is that it constantly creates value….The material that’s here today won’t be here in a few days, but there’s more material coming in. It’s constantly churning through. That’s a lot of hands doing work, that’s a lot of folks creating value, jobs, and opportunities.”
The speakers also emphasized the need for public involvement to make the initiative a success.
Ortiz said all residents are essential to bringing the county to zero waste, from using recyclable bags at the grocery store to using reusable water bottles. He said the department will reach out to the community about the initiative through social media, mailers, and inserts.
“We know when it comes to waste issues, not much can be accomplished without the willing (and) enthusiastic commitment of the public,” Ainsworth said.