Where's the Cash for Trash? HOWARD COUNTY

July 08, 1993

One of the biggest barriers to effective recycling of waste materials has been the lack of a viable market for the materials. All too often, public enthusiasm for "helping the earth" has been --ed by the closing of a recycling center, or the recognition that it costs more to recycle old cans, newspapers, bottles and plastic than it does to dump them.

Running out of existing landfill space, and plagued by leaking pollutants from the bottom of this buried detritus, communities are slowly raising dumping fees to market level. But the blunt economic factors often favor disposing over recycling.

Howard County's recycling rate was only 12 percent of its waste stream last December, but full countywide curbside collection this year will raise that level. Still, the $55-a-ton dumping fee at the Alpha Ridge landfill is less costly than recycling.

Developing new markets for recycled products is essential to sustain the statewide recycling program, the Governor's Advisory Council on Recycling reported last month. The panel told state and local governments to buy more recycled wares, and to require suppliers to offer them. But it stopped short of recommending tax incentives or grants or even technical assistance to promote private industry recyclers and recycling, as is being done in other states.

These subsidies for recycling would help to build a foundation for the environmentally desirable program, while economically viable markets expand.

The council also urged greater public education efforts. But without mandatory recycling (and mandatory government collection) or legislation to reduce waste at the source (which the council failed to endorse), education won't accomplish its goal.

Marylanders are already recycling about 19 percent of their solid waste (with some fudge factors). Higher goals could be met by simply expanding curbside collection service, and raising trash disposal rates. What then to do with the collected recyclables remains the big question.

The council has produced, as it claims, a beginning textbook. But it is not a guidebook to ready action. The 19-member panel is chaired by Harvey Alter, an advocate of incineration and free-market recycling. It also is made up of opposing interests. Yet members could not sort out their differences in three years. Hard decisions remain to be made.

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