The slumping economy is extending the lives of landfills.
Area county government and waste industry officials say precious landfill space is being preserved because the sluggish economy has meant that businesses and builders are generating less waste. The slowdown hurts waste-removal companies, but landfill operators are grateful for anything that extends the lives of their facilities.
"There's been a major drop-off in the amount of building waste that's coming in," said John O'Hara, Howard County's chief of environmental services, who oversees the county's Alpha Ridge Landfill in Marriottsville.
"Two years ago, we were getting upwards of 250,000 tons of waste a year. This year, we figure it's going to be closer to 200,000. The biggest downturn is in business and home-building," O'Hara said.
Alpha Ridge is estimated to have 10 to 12 years of active life left before it is filled, but O'Hara said that could be prolonged by another year or two if the trend continues.
Kenneth Wishnick, district vice president for Browning-Ferris Industries, said the waste disposal giant has been affected by the sluggish economy. He said Browning-Ferris' commercial and construction customers in the region have generated less trash in recent months.
He and others said an increase in recycling programs has played a minor role in the downward trend but that the economy is the major factor.
"It's directly attributable to the recessionary times," said Robert S. Bohager, general manager of Waste Management of Maryland-Baltimore. "A segment of my industry uses rubble Dumpsters. With housing and construction off, you don't put out as many Dumpsters."
In Howard County, the amount of commercial waste peaked about two years ago when building activity was brisk, O'Hara said, then started to decline.
Between July 1, 1988, and June 30, 1989, 151,025 tons of commercial and construction waste were dumped at Alpha Ridge. The amount dropped to 108,244 tons for the 12-month period ending June 30, 1990. There was another sharp drop between last July and December, when only 41,804 tons of commercial and building waste were taken to Alpha Ridge.
Commercial and building waste accounted for 59 percent of the landfill's tonnage two years ago, but it has represented only 48 percent of the total for the last seven months.
John F. Curran Jr., chief of Carroll County's solid waste management bureau, said the total amount of solid waste has remained stable at that county's two landfills, but construction waste is deposited in a rubble cell that has filled up more slowly in recent months.
"It's hard to say whether that's because of an economic downturn or part of a normal slowdown in the winter," Curran said.
John W. Spencer, of Spencer Sand & Gravel Inc. in Harford County, said the amount of construction waste brought to his private dump has dropped 25 to 30 percent over the last four months.
Explained Spencer, "The building's stopped."