No Free Lunch for Recyclers

December 29, 1991

For some time, Baltimore City and most of the surrounding counties have been moving toward compliance with a state law mandating substantial recycling by 1994. Critical in this effort has been Mid-Atlantic Recycling Corp., a local concern that, unlike virtually all of its competitors, accepts unsorted paper at no cost and resells it in the marketplace. But due to a sour economy and plummeting paper prices, Mid-Atlantic says it is losing money and wants to charge suppliers a $15 per ton tipping fee. Local subdivisions are balking.

Under normal circumstances, the obvious remedy would be to find another company that would accept paper waste. But Mid-Atlantic is the only game in town. It collects mixed paper, eliminating the sorting burden on households and making it easier to participate in recycling. This type of service is tough to beat. Competing companies only accept certain kinds of paper. Firms willing to take the residue charge counties tipping fees.

Solving this conundrum means weighing the relative costs of Mid-Atlantic's tipping fee against higher sorting and collection costs. Some argue that other options exist, including incineration and landfills. But these are the very ills recycling is supposed to remedy.

Recycling is gaining strength in the region. Baltimore City, a leader in these efforts, now has curbside pickups for paper products; next week it will phase in collection of glass, plastic, aluminum and tin cans. Howard County is phasing in nearly 15,000 households over the next year. Anne Arundel County's programs are scheduled to double to 50,000 households over the next several months.

Mid-Atlantic has played a key role in this process and should not be expected to carry the regional recycling load without financial support from the counties. The need for a compromise is obvious. The counties must have a place to dump the waste residents are being encouraged to set aside for recycling. Mid-Atlantic must have scrap paper to stay in business. Yet given the state mandates and residents' enthusiasm, the counties don't have much choice but to start picking up some of the waste-removal tab. Even in the recycling business, there's no such thing as a free lunch.

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