Baltimore launches a quiet revolution in recycling But city needs to spread the news

November 29, 1991|By Liz Bowie

Baltimore has launched one of the most ambitious programs in Maryland and the nation to collect recyclable paper at the front curb in every neighborhood. But the city trucks rolling past many a Baltimore row house find only a few lonely bundles.

The problem? City Hall has kept recycling a secret.

"They have this great citywide service that no one knows about," said Dan Jerrems, head of the Maryland Recycling Coalition, a citizens group.

The percentage of residential trash being recycled is still small -- about 2 percent overall, although the proportion rises to 30 percent in some neighborhoods.

Right now in every neighborhood in Baltimore, the city will pick up almost any kind of paper that enters the average house: old newspapers, telephone books, cardboard, junk mail, catalogs, books, computer paper and cereal boxes without the liner to name a few.

And beginning in January, the city will phase in a program of collecting glass, plastic, aluminum, and tin cans.

Pushed by a corps of avid volunteer recyclers, Baltimore has been transformed in 18 months from a city with practically no recycling to a city that will offer everything but composting of green beans and chicken bones by this spring -- and at a savings to taxpayers.

Some cities go at it slowly, prodding their citizens with educational programs for schoolchildren, billboard announcements and promotions on radio and television.

The first information many Baltimore residents got about recycling was a confusing sheet of paper last summer that didn't reach everyone. This week, City Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham introduced a strongly worded resolution that complained about the lack of public education and overall management of the recycling program.

"One of my concerns is this dramatic leapfrog into recycling," said 3rd District Councilman Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III.

"We have a lot more education and promotion to do."

City officials tried to make the brochure clearer, but they blundered once again by having some of them passed out

shortly before the Thanksgiving holiday, when trash and recyclables aren't collected.

Other public education efforts under way include hiring an advertising firm, lining up volunteers in each neighborhood to pass out information and teaching city schoolchildren to recycle, said George G. Balog, chief of the Division of Solid Waste.

Recycling began in Baltimore in 1989 when volunteers opened Saturday and Sunday drop-off centers where residents could bring their recyclables.

In some cases, the centers were inundated with material, and overworked volunteers pushed the city for curbside collection.

When curbside collection began, the centers started closing down. "The thing we are afraid of is that all the momentum that has built up to do this will be squandered," said Philip Hildebrandt, coordinator of a drop-off center at Hollins Market that will remain open on Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. until the city offers curbside collection of all recyclables in every neighborhood.

In about a month, Baltimore will begin a more complicated recycling program, asking residents to buy clear blue bags at the grocery store -- similar to the green trash bags many people already purchase -- to use for recycling bottles and cans. On the second trash collection day of the week, residents will put out on the front curb either recyclable jars, cans and jugs in the blue bags or on alternating weeks, paper.

The curbside program is not available to residents whose garbage is not collected by city trash trucks, such as people who live in large apartment buildings.

Despite the missteps, Baltimore will be one of a handful of major U.S. cities offering such a comprehensive recycling program, according to the Institute of Local Self-Reliance, a non-profit Washington, D.C.-based research and technical assistance group that has made a survey of recycling programs.

In addition, Baltimore will offer more people curbside recycling than any other jurisdiction in Maryland, including its wealthier neighbor, Baltimore County, which is only planning to collect yard waste and paper on front curbs by 1994.

Baltimore's goal is to exceed the state requirement for 20 percent of its trash to be recycled by 1994. While committed to reach 27 percent in two years, city officials say they hope to reach 40 percent.

Curbside recycling programs have been launched in most other suburban counties, but they don't include as many materials or as large a percentage of households as Baltimore will.

About 28,000 households, or about 40 percent, in Howard County and 25,300 households, or about 30 percent, in Anne Arundel County now have curbside collection of some recyclables. Carroll County will begin collecting recyclables for all 43,000 households beginning in July, and Harford County also is planning a curbside program.

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