Plastic bag ban, green agriculture and zero waste: Maryland lawmakers’ climate plans for 2020 session

By Ian Round and Elliott Davis
Capital News Service/Howard Center for Investigative Journalism

When the Maryland legislature reconvenes Jan. 8, legislators of both parties say they will continue the battle against climate change.

Some of their plans are much more aggressive than others.

Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat, said she will sponsor a plastic bag ban in the next session and ask for a study of other single-use plastics, such as food utensils and water bottles.

Lierman said Marylanders can unlearn their dependence on plastic. “The phenomenon of single-use bags is very new,” Lierman said. “We have to take steps to reduce the demand for plastic.”

A generation ago, she said, people didn’t use plastic bags, but now, people have become dependent. And it’s not just bags. “Our behavior has changed to accommodate and to expect a plastic fork to be available wherever we are,” she said. If plastic utensils such as forks are banned, “I am confident that we will all adjust very easily.”

Lierman sponsored the polystyrene foam ban in the 2019 session. When it goes into effect in July, Maryland will be the first state to ban the substance known as Styrofoam.

The new law will ban food and beverage containers made from expanded polystyrene foam, she said. And Lierman would like to see the legislature push to stop the state from spending money on polluting industries.

‘A solvable problem’

Some neighborhoods in Lierman’s district are urban heat islands, where the temperature can run up to 8 degrees hotter than other areas. Neighborhoods with fewer trees and more pavement stay hot long into the evening, and residents suffer from heat-related illnesses at higher rates.

“It’s a problem, but it’s a solvable problem,” Lierman said.

Planting trees takes money and time, but it’s worth the investment, she said. “It is such a clear and easy thing to do.”

Del. Dana Stein, a Baltimore County Democrat, is working on a plan for a coalition of states to reduce greenhouse gases. He said it’s an aspirational idea that would use the framework of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which created a regional cap for greenhouse gas emissions.

He wants to use that model to reverse pollution by taking carbon out of the atmosphere, not just reducing emissions.

He said he would aim to do that through planting trees and subsidizing cover crops and other agricultural practices in order to absorb and store carbon.

Meanwhile, the Maryland Green Party is organizing around a Green New Deal for the state, the primary goal of which is to power the state with 100% renewable energy by 2032.

The party says its clean energy plan must be accompanied by reparations to people who have suffered because of climate change, such as those living in heat islands.

Reducing dependency on cars

Baltimore Del. Robbyn Lewis, a Democrat, said lawmakers will seek to take incinerators off the list of facilities that benefit from green energy credits.

In early October, she created an informal group of legislators focused on reducing trash and improving air quality in South Baltimore, where the country’s 10th-largest incinerator is located. Lierman is one of the members of the group.

Lewis also said she’s organizing on the grassroots level for traffic-calming measures, street trees and bike lanes near her Southeast Baltimore home. She said these “livable streets” changes will benefit the environment by reducing dependency on cars.

“We have to speak in the language of everyday life,” said Lewis, who represents the same district as Lierman. “I think in the environmental movement we fail when we speak in technical jargon.”

When you use the wrong language, she said, residents get lost. “I can’t go over there and talk about urban heat islands,” Lewis said. “But I can go over there and say two girls got hit by a car.”

Legislators beyond greater Baltimore are working on measures aimed at helping the environment.

Former Del. Andrew Cassilly, a Republican from the northeast corner of the state, left the legislature in December to take a job as an adviser to Gov. Larry Hogan. But he said he will continue to work on environmental issues — and many initiatives, he added, make economic sense.

“How does this legislation impact our environment, our economy and our society in a balanced way?” he said.

Cassilly said that management of poultry manure is a problem in his district. He sponsored a bill this year that allows poultry manure that has undergone anaerobic digestion to be used as a fertilizer.

“Often, the challenge is getting the manure to a location where it can be of benefit,” Cassilly said. “You’ve taken a liability and turned it into a commodity.”

He sponsored another bill this year that prohibits landfills from accepting separated organic waste if they can’t compost it themselves.

In October, Cassilly said he would seek to create greater incentives to compost in the next session. He said he’s working with other legislators to take over his bills now that he’s joining the governor’s team.

Sen. Paul Pinsky, chair of the Senate Environment Committee, also wants to reduce car use. He has criticized Hogan’s plans to expand lanes on Interstate 495, I-270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat, said Hogan does not talk about “real solutions” to climate change.

“Clearly, he wants to put more cars on the road,” Pinsky added, also saying that he was “ticked off” that he had yet to see a detailed plan for cutting greenhouse gases from the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The department released its plan in October, after Pinsky spoke with Capital News Service.

‘Growing concern’ about heat in cities

But Maryland’s environment secretary said the administration is taking climate change seriously and making a variety of efforts to combat it.

Secretary Ben Grumbles said that to address the crisis — which he called urgent several times in an interview with CNS — the administration is focused on clean and renewable energy, a “comprehensive” greenhouse gas reduction plan and clean car standards.

Grumbles, who is also the chairman of the Maryland Commission on Climate Change, noted “growing concern” about the impact of extreme temperatures in cities, including Baltimore.

He also said it’s important to provide more opportunities for shelter, such as cooling centers, as well as trees and green space.

“It’s not just the urban heat island effect. It’s also the public health issues surrounding climate change,” he said.

Grumbles listed allergies, asthma, infectious disease and stress as health problems affected by increasing temperatures. He also highlighted research on climate and public health by local universities.

The United Nations warns that the world can only avoid the worst effects of climate change if people act in the next decade. But some state officials are frustrated by the fact that there’s just so much a state legislature can do.

In the mid-2000s, frustrated by what he saw as the George W. Bush administration’s federal inaction toward climate change, Stein, who represents Baltimore County, turned to literature.

He started writing a short dystopian novel set in a “future in which climate change has set in.”

He published “Fire in the Wind” in 2010; he said it sold about 500 copies.

“It just bothered me that nothing was happening in the U.S.,” he said. “I try not to get too upset about the condition of the environment that we’re transferring to our kids.

“I worry by the time that we really, really mobilize, it may be too late.”

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