Recycling roulette

January 13, 1996|By Michael K. Burns

IF THERE'S one thing that dampens enthusiasm for recycling our reusable waste, it's the failure of the collection system. It's been the ruin of many well-intentioned efforts by private groups to promote the recycling ethic. Collection centers open with great brio but fold when the organizers are unable to find takers for their trash, when the recyclables are scattered over the landscape, when rain soaks the contents and containers, making the articles undesirable for collection. Not to mention vandalism.

Vagaries of the market system thwart such do-good efforts. For example, old newspapers are unwanted for months, then the market turns up and they're worth $140 a ton. But volunteer centers that have rejected such offerings now find few contributors.

It's not that recycling is always unprofitable, but that the market fluctuations have to be ridden out. That's something the volunteer programs can't long sustain. Even the long-standing ones, such as Bel Air's Susquehannock Environmental Center (said to be the oldest U.S. volunteer recycling center) have gone through periods of rejecting certain materials, closing for renovations, etc.

What the private volunteer system has failed to do, the government decides it can do through force majeure. A variety of state and county laws mandate household recycling. Typically, a trash-pickup day is changed to a recycling-collection day. In theory, the recyclable half of your refuse is picked up one day, the non-reusable half is collected another day. The convenient curbside pickup is regular, disposal assured.

But theory quickly breaks down into frustrating reality. Recycling days are frequently canceled. The civic-minded resident sees the piles of paper, cans and bottles overflow, with no place to put them. Try to put them out with the trash and they are disdainfully ignored by trashmen.

'One and One'

Take Baltimore County's ''One and One'' collection system, with recycling in some areas on Monday and trash pickup on Thursdays. You don't need a computer calendar to figure out that most official holidays are observed on Mondays. Then there's Christmas and New Year's, which also fell on Monday this time. Add to that the bad-weather days preventing pickups -- even before the monumental Blizzard of '96 -- and you have homes with closets and garages stuffed with uncollectible trash. You could have gone a month recently between recycling collections of papers, and also between can and bottle pickups.

Government's argument is that recycling is not necessarily needed to replace virgin raw materials but to reduce landfill space required to bury throwaways. Environmental restraints, and a strong dose of residential opposition, make it exceptionally difficult to establish a new landfill, even with expensive liners and other controls.

Other environmental laws prevent people from burning trash in barrels (as we once did) or even in fireplaces or stoves.

But government pays a pretty penny to keep its recycling operation afloat. Baltimore County lost money for two years before it began to break even last summer, a result of simultaneous surges in prices for used newsprint and metal cans. Localities pay a private processor to take their recyclables; only that processor knows whether the material is reused or simply disposed of elsewhere.

Government prefers to pay for expensive recycling routines than for new landfills, even though there's ample land and sure designs to limit environmental harm. Mandatory recycling proclaims social responsibility, even as it shifts the burden to individual households. But government, while ignoring market economics, still needs to accept the responsibility for reliable collection.

B4

Michael K. Burns writes editorials for The Sun.

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