Pay as you throw

April 01, 1992

There are routines of life, some maybe even frightening, that eventually become so dated as to seem quaint or silly years later: cranking an automobile to start it; huddling beside the family radio for a presidential "fireside chat"; lining up in school hallways to practice civil defense drills. Some day you will add this one to the list: blithely taking out your trash.

As Maryland jurisdictions inch closer to the January 1994 deadline for meeting state-mandated levels of recycling, various trash disposal programs will be introduced and refined. Marylanders will face a major change in an elemental chore that hasn't changed much for most of this century.

One system that is to be experimented with in Montgomery County, possibly in Anne Arundel and to an extent in Harford is a pay-per-bag program. As with anything new, fears and questions abound. Yet many in the waste disposal world think this is the direction we will go: People will pay for trash disposal as they do other utilities, such as water or electricity. The more they use, the more they pay. Call it pay-as-you-throw. Trash-for-cash. (In humid summers, pay-per-phew.)

It seems so efficient it begs the question how the present system -- paying the same regardless of volume -- evolved. It was probably because we figured burying garbage in the earth was free.

The federal government estimates there are 3,000 curbside recycling programs nationwide, but only 200 pay-per-bag, or volume-incentive, systems. The pitfalls of pay-per-bag are plenty, at least on paper. If you bought stickers to put on each bag of non-recyclable trash, would someone steal your sticker for their bag? Would the per-bag cost encourage some people to litter in the woods?

Seattle, a trend-setter in recycling, experimented briefly with weighing each can on a portable truck sale, scanning an individual bar code on the can and automatically recording the charge to each homeowner. It was merely a test, but the average family reduced its trash output, and cost, by 15 percent in just three months.

The closest Maryland gets to that is in Kent County, where 40 percent of the residents take their trash to a county-run site and pay for each bag they drop off, but not for the recyclables. Two residents have already been prosecuted and fined $180 for throwing garbage in the woods: All Kent countians are advised to look inside trash bags lying by the roadside for clues as to the source.

Does this sound like Big Brother? Late-night science fiction? Someday -- sooner than we think -- it might seem quaint and silly.

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