Machines vs. humans in trash recycling Harford takes a look at mechanical sorter

December 27, 1990|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Evening Sun Staff

Habern Freeman, a plain-talking, freshman state senator who recently left his post as Harford County executive, has no qualms about expressing his thoughts on trash recycling.

"I've tried it and I almost can't do it," he says.

Baltimore-area jurisdictions plan to provide curbside recycling service to hundreds of thousands of residents within several years. And the public reportedly is increasingly changing its ways about the heretofore mundane task of throwing out the trash.

But, thinking that most people consider recycling at home too much trouble, Freeman, just before he left the executive's office, proposed that Harford build a $5 million mechanical sorting plant that would leave recycling entirely up to the government.

The concept, which has not been tried in Maryland, is stirring debate about how best to recycle trash: human or machine?

The plant proposed in Harford would use magnets, blowers and other apparatus to pick recyclables from unsorted garbage. Some of the remaining garbage could be made into compost and the rest burned in the county's incinerator, which creates steam for use by Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Proponents of the plants, called front-end material recovery facilities, say they provide a way of collecting large amounts of recyclables without having to worry about whether residents separate their garbage at home.

Many communities already using the plants -- in Iowa, South Dakota and Tennessee, among others -- serve areas where the distance between homes makes curbside recycling costly.

Detractors, however, say the mechanical sorting plants may be too expensive to build and operate, especially at a time when government budgets are stretched.

The plants also cannot recycle much paper, which represents 40 percent or more of trash. When paper is mixed with other garbage, it is too soiled to be marketable.

Questions also have been raised about the marketability of other items, such as plastic containers. Companies that accept plastics for reprocessing, including Polysource in eastern Baltimore County, are particular about contamination of recyclables with food, chemicals and even tops of containers.

Ultimately, Harford officials may not even go the machine route with a new county executive in place and budget pressures coming to bear.

But the debate underscores the fact that large-scale recycling in Maryland is an infant growing up.

Despite Freeman's doubts, some curbside recycling collection programs are meeting with surprising early success, advocates say.

In the affluent north Baltimore communities of Roland Park and Guilford, an estimated 63 percent of residents took advantage of a curbside program that began last month. But only 27 percent of residents in working-class neighborhoods in northeastern Baltimore participated. City officials say they are beefing up education campaigns to increase participation there.

In the city, as well as Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Howard counties, curbside recycling service is offered to nearly 60,000 households.

Nearly 55 percent of those households are taking advantage of the service at every pickup, according to figures supplied by local recycling officials. Actual participation rates are probably higher, because some residents do not recycle at every pickup.

"We basically can't serve all the people who want curbside recycling," says Linda A. Fields, recycling manager in Howard County.

Most Maryland counties are planning to offer some degree of curbside service to meet the state goal of having up to 20 percent of all garbage recycled by 1994. In addition to the metropolitan Baltimore jurisdictions, Prince George's and Montgomery counties already have substantial curbside programs.

State environmental officials say 750,000 Marylanders, about 16 percent of the population, will be served by curbside recycling programs by Jan. 1.

They add that 17 local jurisdictions, including Baltimore and surrounding counties, have five or more years of landfill space left. Even though many are well-prepared for at least the next decade, recycling is seen as a way to ensure adequate landfill space.

Private waste handlers also have begun seeing green in recycling. Some, such as small companies in Harford and Carroll counties, are beginning their own curbside programs.

Those private endeavors may be essential as governments are pinched by the economy and public recycling operations seem less affordable. Also, if anyone is going to find the most efficient way to recycle large amounts of trash, private waste companies concerned about profits will.

John McKenzie, a private hauler who picks up trash in many Harford communities, recently began distributing hundreds of recycling bins to residents. He hopes to serve as many as 500 homes by Jan. 1.

"Homeowners want to do it," he says.

Some residents will recycle out of a concern for the environment, local haulers say, but others will be attracted by the economy of it. Some haulers are offering free curbside service while charging for trash pickup. Haulers can sell recyclables, but most of them must pay to dispose of regular garbage.

And, though recycling by residents is only half the battle -- business generates about half the trash -- many local officials say separation of recyclables at homes is a concrete thing families can do for the environment. The ozone hole is abstract. The garbage in your kitchen can is not.

Although recycling is far from new -- conservation of paper and other products was a household routine during the war effort in the 1940s -- governments are struggling to make it work on a large scale.

"I don't think anybody has a corner on how to do it yet," says James Slater Jr., director of Carroll County's Department of Natural Resources Protection.

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