Fighting Toxic Trash Incinerators

Incinerators are toxic to surrounding communities and the climate. Incinerators emit high levels of mercury pollution and ultra-fine particulate matter, one of the most dangerous known pollutants to human health. Trash-burning also emits more carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced than does burning coal.

Click here for a downloadable factsheet by Clean Water Action.

BILL TEXT: The Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard – Eligible Sources Act (SB560/HB438)

Factsheet: Legislative Package on the Pathway to Zero Waste. Convened by Delegate Robbyn Lewis

What’s wrong with waste incineration?

The incineration industry has tried to rebrand incineration as “waste-to-energy” in recent years. Unfortunately, trash incineration is currently included in Maryland’s Renewable Portfolio Standard as a Tier 1 renewable energy source.

Trash incinerators are a far cry from being a clean, renewable energy source. Aside from their frighteningly high mercury emissions, incinerators also release ultra-fine particulate matter, one of the most dangerous known pollutants to human health. Installing even the most cutting-edge pollution control technology does not eliminate toxins – it can only collect them into concentrated forms that must be landfilled. Also, waste incineration is terrible for the climate: per unit of energy (MWh), trash incineration produces more carbon dioxide than burning coal.

Trash-Burning Incineration in Maryland

Proponents of incineration claim that this technology is “green,” but this simply isn’t true. Instead, incineration relies upon the continued production of trash and the importation of trash from other states to keep incinerators running – burdening Maryland residents with the resulting pollution.

Incineration also undermines the strong clean energy laws that Maryland already has on the books. The state boasts a robust mandatory renewable energy portfolio standard (RPS), which requires that the state get 20% of its energy from renewable sources by the year 2022. This important legislation was passed with the hope of encouraging the development of clean, renewable energy throughout the state. Renewable energy sources are classified using a tiered system, so that the cleanest energy sources count toward the RPS goals more than others. Trash incinerators were classified as a “Tier Two” energy source under Maryland’s RPS until 2011, when new legislation moved incinerators up to “Tier One.”

As a Tier One energy source, burning trash competes with legitimate renewable energy sources like wind and solar. The passage of this bill further paved the way for incinerators to flood Maryland’s RPS, which prevents the RPS from doing its job of encouraging development of new sources of truly clean energy like solar or wind power. That’s why CCAN Action Fund is committed to removing incineration from the RPS.

Unfortunately, the bill to remove trash incineration from Maryland’s RPS failed in the 2021 General Assembly session. But we’ll be back next year to keep fighting this toxic energy source.

Incinerators In Maryland


The BRESCO incinerator operated by Wheelabrator is Baltimore’s biggest stationary source of air pollution. Reducing local air pollution, and NOx in particular, is critical for public health in Baltimore. The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) finalized a rulemaking process focused on Reasonably Available Control Technology (RACT) for NOx emissions at BRESCO in 2018 to establish stricter NOx limits at the facility in order to limit pollution in our city and protect public health from harmful emissions.

In addition to its high NOx emissions, in 2015, the BRESCO incinerator emitted roughly double the amount of greenhouse gases per megawatt hour of energy than each of the 6 largest coal plants in Maryland. Shockingly, Maryland’s Renewable Portfolio Standard currently classifies incineration as a “Tier 1” renewable energy source, which means that BRESCO receives millions of dollars in subsidies every year. CCAN is committed to cleaning up our RPS and removing incentives for incineration. Removing undeserved subsidies for this polluting facility while tightening its NOx emissions limits will demonstrate that incineration is no longer a viable industry in Maryland and that zero waste is the path toward a healthier population and environment.

Dickerson, MD - April 8:Trucks equipped with special containers that can hold up to 25 tons of garbage dump the contents in the tipping hall of the Covanta Energy Montgomery County incinerator. (Photo by Robb Hill for The Washington Post)
Creator: Robb Hill | Credit: For The Washington Post

Montgomery County

The Montgomery County Resource Recovery Facility in Dickerson is a 24-year-old trash incinerator and the largest polluter in the County – more than the nearby coal-fired power plant. The incinerator burns an average of about 570,000 tons of trash per year, turning it into 390,000 tons of air pollution and 180,000 tons of toxic ash that is dumped in Virginia landfills. Read more here. VICTORY: Students, residents, and advocates successfully defeated Energy Answers’ plan to build the nation’s largest trash-burning incinerator in the Curtis Bay neighborhood of Baltimore in 2016. Click to learn more about the defeated incinerator in the Curtis Bay neighborhood of Baltimore.

The Future of our Trash

Removing public subsidies for trash incinerators is part of a larger effort to build a just transition from incineration to zero waste. 75% of what we dispose of is recyclable or compostable The leftover 25% can be redesigned to avoid.

Zero waste is a goal to divert as much waste as possible from landfills and incinerators through increased recycling, composting, reuse programs and other initiatives.

Here’s how the Baltimore City Council plans to get there:

1). Promote composting, including developing a composting facility.
2). Provide free recycling bins to all Baltimore residents and extensive education ; on what can be recycled.
3). Ban styrofoam and implement a plastic bag fee.
4). Develop a plan for a “Save As You Throw” program to incentivize reductions in the amount of household garbage placed on the curb.
…And much more! The zero waste goal is reflected in the city’s 2019 Sustainability Plan.

A number of cities across the country, such as San Francisco, Oakland, and Austin have adopted zero waste plans to improve their sustainability. It’s time for Maryland to follow their lead. 

Credit: AFP via Getty Images