Late into the race, Harford County has emerged as a clear winner in recycling its solid waste. Last year the county recycled one-quarter of its trash, more than 50,000 tons of unwanted metal, glass and paper products and other detritus.
That's well ahead of the 20 percent recycling goal set by the 1988 state recycling act for larger counties in Maryland. Harford's program has exceeded that standard, even without the 5 percent extra credit given by the state for the county's waste-to-energy incinerator at Magnolia.
The recycling program has expanded since its beginning in 1992 to include such items as telephone books, latex paint, mattresses and Christmas trees; a composting operation has reduced yard wastes. But curbside pickup has been the heart of the effort, with private trash haulers collecting both recyclable material in blue bags and disposable waste from Harford households.
The simple collection system is a major reason for its success. Paper goes in one bag, metal and glass containers in another. Both are placed on the curb for pickup in a single truck by private haulers, who take it to the county transfer station.
The mingling of blue bags of paper and containers in the truck has contaminated recyclable materials, pushing to 17 percent the rejection rate for Harford's material at the sorting facility in Elkridge. But the public convenience has boosted overall totals of trash collected for recycling.
The next step is going to require a bit more effort. Starting in April, the county curbside system will begin an alternating schedule of picking up paper products one week and containers the next.
That will reduce costs of sorting materials and permit haulers to accept junk mail and wrapping paper. Instead of sending all material to the Howard County facility, paper waste will now go to an Essex company for processing.
Harford was the last major county to institute a recycling program under state law. But the program was launched countywide and the impact was immediate. Recycling took 15 percent of the county's solid waste in the first year.
Future gains will not come easy. The biggest bites have been made. And the cost of landfilling trash outside the state is lower than the cost of local recycling programs. So changes to improve the recycling system are necessary. We expect Harford County residents will readily adapt.