Picking apart garbage to put together recycling

COMMENT

December 20, 1998|By Brian Sullam

SOMETIMES, you have to go through several tons of garbage to make public policy.

That is the thinking behind Anne Arundel County's periodic "garbage sort" that ended last week at the Millersville landfill.

As it did in 1995, the county's Waste Management Services sought to determine what residents are putting into their trash cans. Based on its findings, the county will create solid waste policies to increase the amount of recycling and lengthen the landfill's useful life.

The laboratory for this carefully designed study is the landfill -- the place where haulers dump the 250 tons of garbage they collect daily.

For the past two weeks, a green and white party tent was pitched at the landfill about 30 yards from where garbage haulers dumped their loads.

As gulls and other birds that feed on rotting refuse whirled about, a small squadron of men and women was trying to impose order on a process that is, unavoidably, chaotic and random.

Breaking down garbage is no easy task, particularly because just about everything made today is ultimately thrown away.

Although the tent provided a festive touch to the landfill's otherwise grim appearance, there wasn't a party going on. A dozen people dressed in overalls and gloves diligently picked through 250-pound samples of wet, smelly garbage. Working at a big plywood table, they separated diapers from plastics, construction materials from newspapers, food from clothing.

With the temperature in the 50s, the aroma from rotting garbage was hard to miss.

"We are trying to unscramble this egg," said Beryl Friel, the county's recycling manager.

DTC Although an academic discipline has developed around sorting through society's detritus, this is not an esoteric exercise. The purpose is to fashion programs to divert as much solid waste as possible from the landfill.

No one wants a dump

Extending the life of the landfill is the underlying principle of the planning effort.

Building a landfill would be expensive. The rule of thumb is that it would cost about $1 million an acre. To replace the 500-acre Millersville landfill, the county would have to spend $500 million.

Even more daunting would be the prospect of finding a location. Communities don't relish landfills in their midst.

As a result, public works officials operate from the premise that only material with no potential for reuse should be buried in the Millersville facility.

To achieve their goal, county solid waste officials need to have accurate data on what materials are left at the curb for pickup.

In 1995, in the last garbage "sort," county officials discovered a large proportion of old clothing in the trash they studied. Rather than bury these textiles, the county developed a program to collect them and resell them (at a price of $170 a ton) to St. Paul de Vincent Society, a nonprofit agency that has a textile recovery program.

Three years ago, the sort also discovered that Anne Arundel residents were dumping a lot of food into their trash. The county responded with a better composting program. In the past three years, the county has distributed 4,000 free composting bins to encourage residents to make their banana peels, coffee grinds and moldy bread into usable garden loam.

These recycling programs also have to be cost-effective. Some counties recycle mattresses, but Anne Arundel's waste managers calculated the program would cost more than the savings.

Ms. Friel said that the cost analysis does not mean that any recycling program has to realize a profit. The standard the

county uses is that recycling must be less expensive than putting the material into the landfill.

Peanut butter in plastic

Much of the garbage stream is a reflection of industry packaging trends, said Stephen Connolly, an engineer with SCS Engineers, an environmental consulting firm that is running the garbage sort.

"This year, we are noticing a decline in the number of glass containers," he said. "Ketchup containers are now plastic, as are peanut butter jars. It is a reflection of the manufacturers' trend of 'lightweighting' their packaging."

This may be bad news for the the county's solid waste personnel. As the industry converts from glass, which is recyclable, to widemouthed plastic jars, which are not, the amount of trash sent to the landfill may increase.

"We no longer can rely on a one-size-fits-all recycling program," Ms. Friel says, the garbage-sorting party going on. "Our goal is to develop a whole constellation of common-sense approaches."

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 12/20/98

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