County's mulch business is booming

June 26, 1994|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Sun Staff Writer

Harford County considers its 4-year-old yard waste recycling program a huge success. Residents are jam-packing containers at the six county collection sites so much that the bins must be emptied every day -- and the one in Fallston is emptied up to four times daily.

The county turns the yard waste into mulch or compost, which is sold for $7 and $6 per cubic yard, respectively, said Joseph P. Rutherford, superintendent of solid waste.

"We sell out of mulch and compost most Saturdays. Some Saturdays we have had 150 pickup trucks here to buy mulch. Business is good," Mr. Rutherford said of the mulch and composting facility at the Harford County Waste Disposal Facility, known as the Scarboro Landfill, in Street.

But Tom Engelke, who owns Fireside Tom Landscape Supply in Fallston, said the county's business is too good and he believes county officials are trying to put him out of business.

"The county's price is deliberately noncompetitive to attract business," said Mr. Engelke, who has been selling mulch for 18 years. His only business is making and selling mulch, he said.

"I dropped my lowest price to $9.95 -- the lowest it has ever been -- to attract business back from the county," Mr. Engelke said. He sells three kinds of mulch at up to $19.95 per cubic yard.

Mr. Engelke, who says he is the largest producer of mulch in the county, said he has had to spend more money on newspaper and television advertising to coax business away from the county facility because Harford homeowners buy the cheapest product they can find -- at the county landfill.

But Tom Pope, who owns T&M Mulch in Hickory, said his business has not been hurt by the county program. Mr. Pope, who has been in the mulch business for five years, said he sells mulch for $15 per cubic yard.

Larry Klimovitz, Harford's director of administration, said the county is not trying to compete with local mulch producers.

"We are not in the business of making money. We are doing this to save space in our landfills," he said.

For example, he said, the county collected about 25,000 Christmas trees and turned them into mulch. If the trees had been thrown into the landfill, they would have taken up about 25,000 cubic yards of space.

Mr. Klimovitz said the county expects to save 66,000 cubic yards of landfill space this fiscal year, which ends July 1, compared with 58,900 cubic yards saved last year.

He estimates that the landfill's life has been extended from 12 years to 15 years by the mulching program.

The county makes a small profit, about $12,000 a year, from the mulch and compost operation, Mr. Klimovitz said. He said it costs the county about $5 per cubic yard to make its mulch.

Mr. Pope and Mr. Engelke disagree. They believe that it costs the county at least $20 per cubic yard, not $5.

"The county [officials] can afford to sell mulch for $7 per cubic yard because they have limitless funds to hire labor and buy machinery and equipment, and they get their raw materials for free," Mr. Engelke said.

He said the county spent $250,000 for a mulching machine about two years ago. "That would be an impossible sum for most private mulch producers," he said.

George F. Harrison, county spokesman, said the county is doing a cost analysis of its mulching and composting operation to make sure it is recovering its costs.

But he said he believes the $5 per cubic yard production cost is accurate.

"The infrastructure is already there, and we have people who have to be there anyway, so those costs are not factored in," he said. "If we had no recycling program, we would still have to have people there."

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