Talking trash

October 08, 1992

Put a proposal for a new public school, park space or a splashy shopping center in front of a politician and he'll tend to make approving noises. And why not? It's the business of an elected official to know those are generally can't-miss projects that bring bundles of good will from voters.

An incinerator, however, is something most pols are savvy enough to distance themselves from. They might consider it a necessary evil, but they understand that to push for a trash-burning facility is to risk a level of voter wrath that might be topped only by public feeling toward toxic waste dumps.

That's why a recent vote by the Baltimore County Council is worth noting. Last month, the council approved a new 10-year plan for solid-waste disposal. Six of the seven members agreed to boost the county's recycling commitment, from the current state-mandated goal of 20 percent of the waste stream by 1994 to 50 percent by 1997.

A wise move. But the council took another smart, and courageous, step when it killed a measure that would have banned construction of any new incinerator in the county.

True, the six members weren't voting for anything so politically dicey as a specific incinerator to be built by a specific date on a specific site. Yet, by leaving room for the possibility of incinerator construction, they took a forceful stand on a largely unpopular issue. They also sent an important message, that recycling is essential but can be only one aspect of an overall waste-disposal strategy.

Baltimore County isn't the only local jurisdiction pondering how to conquer its mountains of refuse. Each jurisdiction recycles, and while that should be a key component of any waste-disposal plan, a comprehensive strategy would also include new landfills and incinerators. Such facilities have been the bane of environmentalists -- with some justification -- but updated technologies enable landfills and incinerators to be operated much more cleanly than their predecessors.

Still, for each jurisdiction to work up a waste-disposal strategy would be counter-productive. Here's where the new Baltimore Metropolitan Council (BMC) can show whether it can mount the kind of effort that often seemed beyond the abilities of the late Regional Council of Governments. Working together under the BMC banner, local officials could coordinate recycling efforts; attempt to find markets for recyclable waste; place the minimum number of needed landfills and incinerators where they would have the least negative impact; and then publicly present the package in a way that draws citizens into the team spirit of the campaign.

The chance to forge a regional approach to this problem is at hand, and it should not be wasted.

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