Recycling hasn't lived up to hype After 10 years, Md.'s program costs more than it returns

May 25, 1998|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Each week, Maureen and Bob Keck collect their cans, rinse their bottles, bag their newspapers and -- on the appointed days -- haul them out to their Catonsville curb. So committed is Maureen Keck to recycling, she won't even throw away drink bottles at work.

"My guilt button is large," she says, "so I bring them home."

Curbside recycling thrives on the guilt and good intentions of hundreds of thousands of Marylanders like the Kecks. But a decade after the state began requiring such programs as a way to save both money and the environment, there is growing debate about the benefits.

There is little doubt that recycling costs Marylanders millions of dollars more each year than taking all of the state's garbage to the region's growing stock of cheap, privately run dumps.

And many argue that in return, taxpayers get few environmental benefits: The trees that recycling saves are crops, like corn or soybeans. The glass is only processed sand. And landfill space, once thought scarce, is plentiful.

"What keeps recycling going today is a false impression that recycling is good for the environment," says Ronald L. Mersky, editor of the Journal of Solid Waste Technology and Management.

By some measures, recycling is successful. Nationwide, 46 million tons of recyclables worth $3.7 billion were sold on commodities markets in 1996, says R. W. Beck, a national consulting firm. That year, Maryland produced 1.5 million tons of recyclables, state records show.

In Maryland's metropolitan areas, recycling is popular and almost universally available -- saving space in dumps, spurring green industries and reducing the consumption of raw materials, environmentalists say.

L Still, critics say the public doesn't know what it's buying.

Recyclers talk often of saving trees, for example, and paper makes up the bulk of curbside collections. But in the United States, the trees cut for paper are usually fast-growing softwoods that are raised as crops, harvested and replaced by saplings.

"Yes, you're saving trees. You're not saving the trees you think you're saving," says recycling expert Lynn Scarlett of the Reason Foundation, a think tank in Los Angeles. "You're not saving the redwood forests of California."

Recycling was supposed to save Maryland from "the garbage crisis," a term popularized in 1987 after the barge Mobro wandered the East Coast in search of a resting place for thousands of tons of Long Island, N.Y., garbage.

This highly publicized tale triggered fears of a coming shortage of dump space, of a future buried in garbage.

"Recycling is absolutely critical to our survival on this planet," Montgomery County environmentalist Bev Thoms told state legislators in 1988, using rhetoric typical for the time. "Without it, we will use up our resources and poison ourselves from the pollution of our own waste."

Legislators act

Legislators responded in 1988 with the Maryland Recycling Act, requiring metropolitan counties to recycle at least one of every five tons of garbage. For rural counties, where curbside programs are impractical because homes are spread out, the standard is about one of every seven tons.

Since government recycling programs became widespread in 1992, Marylanders have recycled nearly 9 million tons of waste. About 3.2 million tons came from government curbside and drop-off programs, the rest from businesses recycling privately.

Both types of recycling have grown to the extent that nearly one-third of the 5 million tons of garbage produced in Maryland each year is recycled.

Those totals are enough to make state Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the Montgomery County Democrat who crafted Maryland's law, declare victory.

"It's been extremely successful," he says. "A million and a half tons is being taken out of the waste stream [each year] and being turned into useful products again."

But Frosh and other supporters concede that recycling has been costlier than expected. His 1988 bill predicted significant cost savings, but now he says, "I wish it were clearer."

Environmentalists based their rosy financial forecasts on a key assumption -- that dump space was disappearing, and that scarcity would drive up dump fees.

But only government-run dumps were becoming scarce as politicians became increasingly wary of building them near populated areas.

A 1994 decision by the Supreme Court deregulated the trash industry, prompting companies to build huge dumps -- called mega-fills -- in Pennsylvania, Virginia and other states with cheap land. Even with shipping costs included, the mega-fills were cheaper -- and thanks to tougher federal regulation, safer -- than the dumps governments ran for decades.

Cheap dump space

Pennsylvania alone has dump and incinerator capacity for 200 million tons of garbage a year -- enough for all the nation's garbage. And the 300-acre King George County Landfill in Virginia charges just $33 a ton to bury garbage from Howard and Anne Arundel counties -- about half what they charged at their dumps just a few years ago.

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