SILVER SPRING – Montgomery County spends about $12 million a year picking up trash, much of which could be recycled and reused if properly sorted, said Adam Ortiz, director of Montgomery County’s Department of Environmental Protection.
Ortiz, who oversees the $140 million agency with 300 employees and contractors, was the featured speaker at the Dec. 2 Montgomery Parks Speaker Series held at the Montgomery Regional Office Building in Silver Spring.
Cleaning the water and recycling more is “not just for us, but for the generations that succeed us,” Ortiz said.
Montgomery County has set the ambitious target of having zero waste by 2035 by eliminating emissions, restoring watershed areas, increasing recycling compliance and adding more items to the list of what can be recycled.
“We are all in this together,” Ortiz said, referring to the government, residents, and organizations and businesses that operate in the county.
The county “declared a climate emergency, which means we are serious. We’ve got to step up our game,” Ortiz said.
Currently, commercial and residential buildings are responsible for slightly more than half of the emissions that pollute our air and water here.
Another 41% of the emissions are transportation-related, according to Ortiz, who noted, “There are millions of people on the road.”
Even though the county envisions eliminating 80% of these emissions in about seven years, Ortiz said, “Based on the latest data, we are actually trending the wrong way.”
Between 2012 through 2015, emissions rose in the area, he noted.
“Always, always, this is a work in progress,” he said.
If the county were to stop using natural gas or fossil fuels, it would have to install solar panels on 15,000 acres, he said. “That’s a big number, but not, I think, an unachievable number.”
County Executive Marc Elrich hopes to mandate the inclusion of solar panels on all new construction, but Ortiz said a few panels here and there are not the solution. There needs to be a large area of many acres filled with solar panels, he said.
Currently, there are about 10,000 panels installed throughout the area, most of which are “just a couple of panels here and there,” he said.
The county is working to reduce emissions generated through transportation by increasing public transportation, adding bike lanes and encouraging ride-sharing, he said.
“I think the big game-changer is going to be teleworking,” Ortiz said, explaining that would get cars off the roads.
A 20% reduction in car trips “would make a massive difference,” he said.
As for watershed restoration, the county only used to be concerned with actual streams and other water sources here. But for the past several years, it has concentrated its efforts on “non-point surfaces,” meaning roads, parking lots, fluids from cars and even the air. Most of that pollution ends up in the water, Ortiz noted.
As part of the county’s efforts to look at everything it does through racial equity and a social justice lens, the Department of Environmental Protection will be changing its focus.
In the past, more projects have been conducted in the western part of the county than in the Anacostia River or Lower Rock Creek, Ortiz said, noting that is changing.
Ortiz also addressed recycling, noting that only about 42% of items that should be recycled are. And, Ortiz said, that percentage “hasn’t really gone up in 10 years.”
The county intends to review its records to see which areas are not recycling enough and conduct an educational blitz there, he said.
The Dickinson County Solid Waste Processing Facility receives about 18% plastics and 20% food waste, all items that should not be sent there, Ortiz said.
He estimated that half the items sent to the solid waste facility have the potential to be recycled. Much of that consists of items that should have been recycled were not. It also includes soiled paper, clothing, textiles, lumber and carpeting.
Ortiz said the county must reach out to businesses that recycle different items and try to work together.
Currently, the county receives $1,400 for each ton of aluminum it recycles and $25 a ton for plastics.