Making recycling work

January 17, 1992

In Montgomery County, 200,000 households are separating glass, aluminum, plastic jugs and newspapers from other trash in the state's largest curbside recycling effort. Later this year, the county will push legislation to start compulsory recycling for businesses and multi-family housing. Meanwhile, in Baltimore city, a voluntary curbside program encompassing 233,000 households is collecting aluminum, glass, plastic and mixed paper. Next week, the city adds bottles and cans.

These ambitious programs fly in the face of conventional wisdom on recycling -- that it isn't a priority or is too expensive or time-consuming. Both of these jurisdictions are operating under severe fiscal strain, yet have managed to move quickly and decisively toward the state mandate of recycling 20 percent of their waste stream by 1994.

The reasons have more to do with commitment and innovation than cash. In Montgomery, which aims to recycle 40 percent of its waste by the turn of the century, recycling is mandatory. With compliance of as much as 95 percent in some areas, the county hasn't bothered to levy fines on the few households that are not participating.

Baltimore city's program is voluntary and compliance is far lower. But by leveraging existing resources, this poor subdivision has managed to put together the state's largest effort on a shoestring and may even be saving taxpayers money. It uses existing trash trucks and has designated one of two pickup days for recyclables. The city pays about $37 a ton to dump trash into an incinerator or landfill; recyclable materials can be disposed of for free. By summer, officials estimate the city will pay more than $10 per household to collect regular garbage compared to a fraction of that -- about $1.38 -- to round up recyclables.

This is the most persuasive case for recycling. But some counties argue that such savings are possible because Baltimore city is using its own garbage trucks. Suburban jurisdictions, by contrast, tend to use private haulers, giving them less flexibility and less control over routes.

There are ways around this problem. Baltimore County, for example, is considering setting aside a day to collect recyclables only. But Towson is proceeding at a snail's pace, citing the budget crunch as an excuse for its meager recycling experiments. Harford County, meanwhile, is giving private haulers a price break on recyclables and asking them to offer similar incentives to customers.

At this point, no jurisdiction has all the answers. The picture is further clouded by the recession's impact on local budgets and the market for recycled products. But the experience in Montgomery and Baltimore show what a jurisdiction can accomplish when officials focus on ways to make recycling work instead of making excuses.

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