Taking Out the Trash in Ocean City

Ocean City is a small town with a big impact in Maryland - with only about 7,000 year-round residents, its population can swell to nearly 350,000 on a nice summer weekend. All of those people produce a lot of trash, which can produce a lot of problems. In 2010, in the wake of the recession and facing massive municipal budget cuts, Ocean City chose to eliminate recycling pickup. All of Ocean City's waste, recyclables and all, goes to an incinerator run by Covanta Energy Group, entitled the Delaware Valley Resource Recovery Facility.

The Delaware Valley Resource Recovery Facility is in Chester, Pennsylvania and has been in operation since 1992. Every day, the facility burns as much as 3,510 tons of municipal waste (roughly equivalent to the weight of a naval combat ship). It’s the largest of any trash incinerator in the country, and burning all that trash releases large amounts of different pollutants. With the release of harmful pollutants in the air, the health and well-being of Chester is in question. PBS reported in 2017 that “38.5% of children in Chester have asthma. That’s nearly five times the national average. A quarter of the town’s adults also have asthma. Furthermore, Chester residents are significantly more likely to develop lung cancer and ovarian cancer and die from a stroke or heart disease than other Delaware County residents." Trash sent to this incinerator from Ocean City, and from any number of municipalities in the region, contributes to this environmental injustice.

One Eastern Shore organization trying to reduce the use of these facilities and create greener alternatives is Go Green OC. They are dedicated to promoting recycling (especially cardboard and aluminum), composting, and zero waste in Ocean City. We recently had the chance to ask Executive Director Joshua Chamberlain and Director of Compost Operations Garvey Heiderman some questions about what got Go Green OC started, and what it will take for more local composting efforts to thrive in Maryland.

Garvey, who was born and raised in Ocean City, is also the owner of The Hobbit Restaurant, so a focus on composting restaurant waste is a natural fit. In 2018, Go Green OC piloted a compost program at The Hobbit Restaurant and collected almost 2,000 pounds of waste in four weeks. They removed 50% of the waste produced by The Hobbit and diverted it to be composted at a farm in Berlin.  "From a farmer’s standpoint compost is phenomenal," Garvey says. "It can bring back cropland that has been desolate and drained of nutrients for years. From our coastal point of view it is phenomenal for preventing runoff from leeching into the groundwater and into the watershed." In 2019, Go Green OC raised nearly $8,500 to build the foundation of the program.  In 2020, they plan to expand and process over 20,000 pounds of food waste into compost. "Our goal is not to get every single person in Ocean City to compost. Our goal is to get the big boys to compost," says Josh. Focusing on getting large food waste producers to compost can quickly and efficiently get enormous amounts of food scraps out of the waste stream.

Additionally, in the fall of 2019, Go Green OC sponsored the first zero-waste event in Ocean City with OC Bikefest, one of the nation’s largest motorcycle festivals. By the end of the event, Go Green OC collected over 26,000 cans to be recycled. This is enough to fill a 30-foot-long moving truck!  "We implemented strict education and enforcement (and received money for doing it).  Bikers were high-fiving our volunteers! Go Green OC made the news locally for bringing back recycling to large scale event after a decade.  In 2020, we will be eliminating all plastics and reducing waste by 65%!" says Chamberlain. You can read more about their successes here!

Even with this success, the city's contracts with Covanta can be a barrier to wider composting and recycling efforts. Josh says that "incineration hinders recycling and composting efforts. Why would anyone spend efforts going the extra mile when they can just throw everything in one bin and burn it?" But with a carefully plotted zero waste strategy, Garvey says, "we are going to save Ocean City MONEY!  Covanta charges nearly $70/ton to remove waste. We hope to be able to scale composting to the point where we can do it for substantially less and in turn save the town money.  It will also have a positive impact on the town's image enhancing their green efforts.  We could move money away from a polluting waste incinerator and into the local economy.  Don't forget about the environment!"

Zero waste policies would also create more jobs in Ocean City and elsewhere in Worcester County. When recycling ended, nearly 20 people lost their jobs (although eleven of them found new positions in city government). Josh says that returning to recycling and starting composting would reverse that trend: "by composting, we can create 10-15 local jobs (nurseries, drivers, compost farm).  On a per-ton basis composting alone employs 2x more workers than landfills and 4x more than incinerators."

The community supports recycling and greener initiatives as well. Residents and visitors are eager not to throw away their waste, Josh says: "people message me weekly asking where to take their cans. Lots of tourists are driving home with recyclables in their cars." With community support and the benefits towards the local economy, the future of composting in Ocean City looks favorable. The only barrier that Go Green OC has is “a lack of volunteers seems to be a difficult hurdle although we have a small group of loyal Go Green OC volunteers! Finding board members and people who can take the time to meet with us has been challenging.” Josh reports that Go Green OC's efforts have "received countless messages and community support. Recently, our community raised us nearly $5000 to start the compost program through Go Fund Me." However, GoFundMe efforts aren't enough to develop at-scale composting infrastructure. Josh says that it's been easy to find farmers interested in hosting compost facilities on their land, but "resources like equipment and manpower are hard to come by when you're working with little to no money." 

As the efforts of Go Green OC continue to help eliminate waste going to incinerators, it is the goal of Go Green OC to turn Ocean City into a zero-waste resort city, the first in the United States. With greater support, Go Green OC can have a greater impact. 

Want to find out more about Go Green OC? Check out www.gogreenwithoc.org/ and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Want to bring more composting initiatives to Maryland? Check out our zero waste campaigns and get involved!