Officials say new recycling plan is reducing glass breakage

November 22, 1994|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

Howard County recycling officials have found a way to prevent more than 900 tons of glass from being broken each year in the recycling process -- breakage that renders the glass worthless to recyclers and fit only to be buried in a trash dump.

This month, all neighborhoods were required to put containers in see-through plastic shopping bags on the curb rather than loose in the plastic bins that were formerly used in the curbside recycling program.

The tied-up bags -- each containing a mix of glass, plastic and metal containers -- keep the items from rattling around when they are loaded into collection trucks and from getting smashed when they are dumped onto the floor of the Browning-Ferris Industries recycling plant in Elkridge.

In one year, "we were breaking as much as 1,000 tons" of the 3,800 tons of glass collected at county curbsides and by the county's recycling truck, said Linda Fields, chief of the county Public Works Department's Recycling Division.

Ms. Fields believes that by collecting the containers in shopping bags, the county will cut the amount of broken glass to about 100 tons a year.

"When the containers are inside of the plastic bags, the plastic bottles act like a cushion for the glass," explains Linda Birtel, manager of the Browning Ferris' plant.

"When they would go in the truck loose, all of the glass would go right to the bottom."

Small pieces of broken glass must be thrown out, rather than recycled, because they cannot be easily separated into brown, green and clear glass that can be sold profitably.

Only large pieces of broken glass -- 2 inches or more across -- can be sorted safely by hand. Smaller pieces fall through a screen at the Browning-Ferris plant and onto a conveyor heading for a trash container.

The broken glass then is dumped in a landfill, Ms. Birtel said.

Although the plastic bags in the the new system are not recycled, "we estimate that for every ounce of plastic bag you use to bag the stuff in, you save a pound of glass," said Ms. Fields.

The bag system also cuts collection labor costs by about 30 percent, she said. Emptying the bags adds to the cost of processing, but the county still saves, she said.

The bag system was introduced on a trial basis in Savage and North Laurel two years ago.

Residents of Kings Contrivance, Owen Brown and parts of Long Reach -- the last communities to switch over to the new system -- have learned the hard way that they must bag their containers, rather than put them out in bins.

"If they put things out and they're not packaged the way we need them to be packaged, then they get left on the curb with a sticker" with instructions on how the bag system works, Ms. Fields said.

For Kings Contrivance resident Martha Gibbons, switching to bags came naturally.

"The change does not bother me at all -- I already used plastic bags," she said, explaining that when she moved from Long Reach recently she didn't get a recycling bin and had to improvise.

As of June, county residents and businesses have been recycling 28 percent of the county's waste. Since the beginning of this year, state law has required the county and other populous counties to recycle 20 percent of their waste.

Businesses helped bring that average up, recycling 35 percent of their waste, most of it through private contractors, compared with just under 24 percent for residential waste.

All county houses get curbside recycling service for mixed paper, containers, leaves and Christmas trees. The county is expanding the service to apartment and condominium complexes.

So far, 17 communities with about 4,000 housing units have requested and received bins for recycling mixed paper. Recycling officials are working to add 13 more communities.

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