Walking around Mid-Atlantic Recycling Corp.'s huge new paper sorting and baling plant in Canton, one gets the impression that recycling is a simple business.
Trucks pull into the cavernous warehouse on Baltimore's waterfront and dump loads of old newspapers and other used paper. The stuff is pushed onto a conveyor belt, where workers pull out unwanted material, then an 80-ton baling machine compacts it into 1,800-pound bundles.
But collecting recyclables from homes and businesses, and readying them for shipment to manufacturers who can turn them into other products, is the easy part of the process.
As some cities have discovered in a painful way, recycling is much more. Recyclables basically are commodities, like oil and grain, subject to price swings influenced by changing currency-exchange rates, labor disputes and even military conflicts. During the Persian Gulf war, overseas shipment of recyclable paper was hampered because so many shipping containers were being used for goods to supply the war effort.
In recent years, fluctuations in the market for recyclable paper have created mountainous backlogs of old newspapers in Philadelphia, the District of Columbia and elsewhere.
Governments in the Baltimore region are banking on the emergence of a sophisticated marketing system to help sustain recycling over the long haul -- one that relies on the port, rail lines and highways to feed material to manufacturers worldwide.
Mid-Atlantic's operation represents that level of sophistication, recycling officials say. The operation, now in a shakedown mode, is giving those officials hope that local recycling efforts can avoid some of the fits and starts experienced elsewhere.
"This capability will allow us to go full-scale in collection efforts with an assured market," said Daniel L. Jerrems, chairman of the Baltimore Recycling Coalition, an advocacy group.
Mid-Atlantic, housed in a 130,000-square-foot warehouse, is touted by the company and state backers as the largest paper-recycling plant in the country. The company, which hopes to be processing up to 300 tons of paper each day by sometime next year, secured a $1 million loan guarantee from the Maryland Industrial Development Financing Authority and a low-cost lease of a state-owned warehouse on Clinton Street.
The warehouse is served by a Conrail line, is directly off Interstate 95 and can load baled newsprint and other paper onto barges and ships for transport to paper mills in Canada, South America, Europe and Asia. The mills then re-process the paper into newsprint, tissue, boxes and other products.
"No matter what the market is, we're on the shipping point," said David C. Tolzmann Jr., a former Baltimore Sun Co. executive who is Mid-Atlantic's president. Tolzmann calls Mid-Atlantic the "missing link" in the region's recycling program.
Tolzmann, who expects his company to begin shipping bales of recyclable paper to manufacturers within several weeks, has spent months playing host to representatives of domestic and foreign paper mills who would receive the material. On one recent day, Tolzmann was meeting with a representative of a German paper mill. On another, he was having lunch with a representative of a Japanese mill.
Mid-Atlantic began accepting loads of paper in late May. It has since accepted about 1,500 tons. About one-third of the tonnage has come from businesses, which produce large volumes of cardboard and mixed paper. Processing began June 10.
Tolzmann said the typical price he could get for a ton of recyclable newsprint is now about $20 or less. In the early 1980s, it was as much as about $55 a ton, he said.
The age-old methods of trash disposal, landfilling and incineration, are basically simple processes. A hauler picks up trash and takes it to be buried or burned, then buried.
Recycling, however, is a multi-level operation in which a bundle of old newspapers from a family in Towson can wind its way to a paper mill in Korea, where it is used to make a cardboard box to package a video-cassette recorder, bound back for the United States.
"With recycling, you have all these different steps that have to be working properly," said Leslie L. Legg, spokeswoman for the Washington-based National Solid Wastes Management Association, a trade group for waste-handlers.
State mandates are forcing localities to recycle varying amounts of waste to preserve dwindling amounts of landfill space. Other laws, such as one in Maryland, require newspapers to use more recycled newsprint.
Papermakers and other manufacturers, in turn, must be assured of a consistent, high-quality supply to meet the increasing demand for recycled products, Legg explained.
That's where operations such as Mid-Atlantic, known in the waste business as Material Recovery Facilities, or MRFs, fit in.
"The demand right now for MRFs is really great," Legg said, adding that there were just 16 such plants across the country in 1988. Now, there are more than 90, Legg