Recycling in Harford

May 30, 1992

The buzz word in government these days, embraced by liberals and conservatives alike, is "privatization" -- meaning that the government hires businesses to provide services it used to deliver. When voluntary curbside recycling begins in Harford County on Monday, residents will get a measure of how responsive privatization can be.

Harford is one of two Baltimore metropolitan jurisdictions where private haulers, not the government, collect residential trash. The county has required the sanitation firms to offer curbside recycling to its customers beginning next week because the county, like its neighbors, must recycle a fifth of its trash under a 1994 deadline set by the state.

Some private haulers have been stuck in the mud on this matter, however, possibly hoping that this new era in garbage disposal wouldn't come to pass. Harford Sanitation Services Inc., one of the county's larger haulers, has just begun informing its 20,000 customers, days before recycling is to begin. The company is so far behind that it just began distributing a copy of a letter County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann wrote three months ago to explain the program.

The early leader among Harford's six residential haulers has been McKenzie Sanitation of Baldwin, the lone firm to offer a so-called "tag and bag" program that rewards people for recycling. McKenzie customers purchase books of 30 stickers at 65 cents per sticker. They only put stickers on their bags or cans of refuse -- not on their recyclables -- so they only pay, in effect, for what they send to the landfill. Other Harford haulers are basically raising their rates for everyone, so the customer who is conscientious about recycling will pay more to cover the cost for the laggard who isn't separating his re-usable cans, bottles and newspapers. That's no way to encourage an environmentally sound practice.

McKenzie, the county's fourth largest hauler, reports that it has gained 125 customers in the past three weeks and got nearly 100 more inquiries this week. Robert Hooper, a former county councilman whose family operates HSS, said his phone has been ringing off the hook from people disgruntled because he's doubling their rates. He said his prices and practices may change as his firm gets more experience in collecting recyclables. Apparently, his and other firms' early losses will be McKenzie's gain.

As Harford residents learn about recycling in the coming weeks, their trash collectors will learn a lesson about privatization -- it's survival of the fittest.

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