Crackdown on garbage seen working In first four months, amount of trash hauled by county fell 13%

Ecker: 'Very encouraging'

Since July, residents can fill 4 bags a week, must pay $125 a year

November 21, 1996|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Howard County's strict new trash policy -- the toughest of any county in the Baltimore area -- is showing early signs of getting residents to recycle more and throw away less.

In the four full months since the new policy took effect in July, the amount of trash collected by the county decreased by 13 percent compared with a year ago, while total recyclables -- glass, bottles, paper and yard waste -- increased by 45 percent.

County officials caution that data from just a few months can be misleading, particularly for a period when publicity about the program was strong and Howard's yard-waste recycling program expanded dramatically. But they also have begun claiming success.

"It's very encouraging," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who made the trash policy one of his administration's top priorities. "I think it does mean that the program is working."

The new policy -- which was accompanied by a new annual trash fee of $125 per house -- allows residents to put only four bags or cans by the curb for collection each week.

The new limit is the lowest of any county in the Baltimore area and half of Howard's old limit of eight bags or cans.

Some county residents appear to have learned the "Seattle stomp," invented when residents of that city complied with a similar policy by stuffing each trash can as full as possible.

In April, a county survey showed that the average family put out 3.6 bags or cans a week. This month, a new survey put that number at 2.2 bags or cans. The nearly 40 percent drop is far greater than the decrease of trash volume in that period.

"They're just smooshing things together," said Linda Fields, head of the county's recycling office.

One measure of Ecker's program is the reactions of such residents as Dan Goettel of Columbia's Wilde Lake village, who complained about the fee and the four-can limit in June.

But after the program took effect, Goettel said, he pulled his recycling bin out of his garage -- where he had used it for storage -- and started recycling newspapers, cans and bottles.

"I found myself putting stuff in the bin where I hadn't before," Goettel said. "It's an inconvenience, but it's actually for a good type of cause."

Actually, the volume of many of the most common recyclables -- glass, cans and bottles -- has grown little under the new program.

But more than making up for that, recycling of paper reached a county record in October -- with 1,547 tons recycled -- besting the old record of December 1994 by nearly 10 percent. And yard-waste recycling, made available and mandatory in most of the county this spring, doubled compared with a year ago.

County officials also say the recycling program is saving money, even taking into account that they spent $90,000 this year for newspaper advertisements, exhibits and mailings to publicize recycling.

Collecting yard waste and recyclables costs slightly more than trash collection. But dumping trash at Howard County's Alpha Ridge landfill in Marriottsville costs $60 a ton, while private companies typically pay a few dollars a ton for recycled paper, plastic, glass and cans.

The price for dumping trash will drop to $33 a ton when the county closes the landfill at the end of the year and starts sending its trash to a private landfill outside the county.

Yard waste costs $39 a ton to turn into compost. That price could rise now that county officials have decided to close -- at least temporarily -- the compost facility in Dorsey after nearby residents complained that it brought noxious smells, health problems and snakes.

The Dorsey facility, run by agreement with Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, is now a transfer station to a compost facility in Prince George's County. But the Dorsey operation could eventually reopen if problems there are solved.

Though county officials are pleased with the first several months of the new trash program, critics contend that Ecker should have gone further to limit the amount of trash residents can put by the curb.

A committee he created recommended a pay-per-bag program that would make residents pay only for the trash they create.

L. Scott Muller, a committee member and neighborhood activist living near the Alpha Ridge landfill, said the expansion of yard-waste recycling -- not Ecker's four-can limit -- likely brought the increased recycling and decreased trash of the past few months.

"I think we could do a lot more either with a lower number of bags or a pay-per-bag," Muller said. "I'd like to see us cut our waste stream by 25 percent and I think it's possible to do that."

But Jack Hollerbach, the committee chairman, applauded Howard's changing trash and recycling habits. "It's progress," he said. "I think we could have done more. But the political environment being what it is, this is what could have been done."

Ecker plans a pilot "pay-as-you-throw" program in which trucks equipped with hydraulic lifts and weighing equipment would calculate the amount of trash thrown away by each home's residents. The county then would bill residents -- on a per-pound basis -- for exactly what they generate.

County officials say west Columbia's Wilde Lake village has volunteered to help pilot the program. And officials hope to also sign up two other areas, Columbia's Town Center and the Beaverbrook neighborhood off Route 108 to broaden the test area.

Ecker favors a program like that for the entire county, but in the near future he plans to steadily lower the can or bag limit to three bags, two and maybe one in the years ahead.

"I think going to two is very feasible," he said. "We'll have to see about one."

Pub Date: 11/21/96

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