Where's the Cash for Trash?

July 08, 1993

One of the biggest barriers to effective recycling of waste materials has been the lack of a viable market for the recycled 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 the old cans, newspapers, bottles and plastic than it does to dump them in a landfill.

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.

Harford County, for example, pays more than $90 a ton to haul and to process recyclables at a private Elkridge facility, with $15 back for sellable material. But it only costs $35 a ton to dump waste at the one remaining county landfill.

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 public subsidies for recycling would help to build a firm foundation for the environmentally desirable program, while long-term, economically viable markets expand. The recycled market is glutted by good intentions; recycled waste today averages less than half its selling price in 1988.

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 guide to ready action. The 19-member panel is chaired by Harvey Alter, an advocate of incineration and free-market recycling, but it also consists of opposing interests. Yet members could not sort out their differences in three years. Hard decisions remain to be made.

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