Dwindling Market For Trash Threatens Recycling Efforts

July 07, 1991|By Samuel Goldreich | Samuel Goldreich,Staff writer

While the county executive prepares to get a large number of Harfordresidents to sort their trash for recycling, a more daunting task lays ahead: finding buyers for the glass, aluminum, paper and other recyclable material collected.

The county executive is proposing a voluntary curbside recycling program just as prices plummet for a broadrange of recycled commodities.

The countywide program County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann proposed last month could move Harford ahead of other Baltimore-area jurisdictions, which are taking a phased-in approach to meet a state mandate to reduce its waste streams by 1994.

But the county faces the prospect of selling its garbage to markets already glutted, recycling experts say.

"It's going to be a challenge," said Bob Chance, executive director of the non-profit Susquehannock Environmental Center inBel Air, the nation's oldest recycling organization. "People have tocreate demand for recycled products."

Markets for recyclable materials became so sophisticated during the past decade that everything from newspapers and aluminum cans to plastic milk jugs and computer paper are traded like soybeans and pork bellies.

For most of the past year, supply has outstripped demand for many recycled commodities,making some materials worse than useless to Harford and other counties.

"It's not being driven by the (demand) markets as it should be. It's being driven as a waste-disposal option," said Susan Combs, news editor of Recycling Times, a biweekly trade paper published by theNational Solid Wastes Management Association.

Just within the last three weeks, processors cut the price they were willing to pay for green glass to the non-profit Susquehannock center to $15 a ton, from$50.

Bottlers who had been collecting green glass to support recycling efforts have been so successful that the markets cannot absorb the supply. They even eliminated a $10 per ton trucking subsidy paid to Susquehannock.

By the time the county gets its recycling program going, it could end up paying to have some glass and other recyclable products hauled away, some experts predict.

Rehrmann's plan to have residents sort their trash into blue plastic bags wins high praise for its efficiency, especially when compared with some neighborhood collection bin programs.

"The blue bag should be the wave of thefuture, as opposed to the blue box," Combs said.

Her only warningwas that the county faces a challenge in trying to convince residents, especially apartment dwellers, to find the space for separate 13-gallon bags of newspapers and glass, plastic and metal containers, and30-gallon bags of yard clippings.

But the bigger question is: Whowill buy the garbage once it's sorted at the county's Waste-To-Energy Facility on Aberdeen Proving Ground?

Prices have been dropping in recent months for glass, plastic and paper products and aluminum, which serve to underwrite recycling of less valuable materials.

Theglut of many recyclables follows the history of newspaper recycling,which has left communities nationwide paying as much as $25 a ton tohave it taken away for incineration.

"The next big problem you'regoing to see is (copying) paper. And the problem with plastics is that they're very high volume but have no weight, so it's very expensive to collect,' Combs said.

County residents will have to decide whether it's worth either the price or the inconvenience to sort trash that nobody will buy.

Bruce Davies, Susquehannock's business manager, has faith that people will learn that the long-term savings to the environment, energy conservation and lower consumer prices will be worth the effort.

"Generally, the free marketplace, when encouraged properly, takes care of the problem," he said.

Not content with the speed of the marketplace, the General Assembly voted last year torequire that 12 percent of newsprint used by Maryland newspapers must be recycled by 1992. The quota jumps to 40 percent in 1998.

Solving the extra supply of glass will be more difficult.

Most of the green glass in the nation's garbage stream is produced in Canada, Germany and other nations that export beer and wine. "And they really don't want it back," Combs said.

Closer to home, Rehrmann's plan includes recycling "most of the wastes generated" by county government offices and requiring certain products of government bids to be made from recycled wastes. She has not offered details of that end of her recycling proposal.

Davies thinks the county government should havebegun thinking about using recycled materials last month when Rehrmann unveiled her recycling plan. He noted the county continues to print the executive's press releases on one side only of non-recycled paper.


Prices reported paid by Mid-Atlantic regional processors for recyclable commodities in 1990-1991:

COMMODITY.. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..HIGH.. .. ..LOW.. ..JUNE 3-21

ALUMINUM CANS per pound.... .37-45.. .15-23.. .. .15-23

GLASS (per ton)

Clear and brown.. .. .. .. ..$10-$40.. ..$0-$10.. .. ..$0-$10

Green $10-$40 $0 $0

MIXED PLASTIC* (per pound).. .. ..6.. .. 1-6.. .. .. 1-6

PAPER (per ton)

Computer.. .. .. .. .. .. .. $70-$85.. . $35-60.. .. ..$60-80

White ledger.. .. .. .. .. ..$65-$80.. ..$20-45.. .. ..$20-45

*Includes soda bottles, milk jugs, cleaners, etc.

Source: Recycling Times, published bi-weekly by the National Solid Wastes Management Association

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