ROCKVILLE -- Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan is betting $2 million of taxpayer money that he can get residents to recycle 50 percent of their trash by the end of next year. The odds are stacked against him, according to statistics in an internal report by county analysts.
The report also says that when compared with Howard County's mixed-paper recycling program, the deal the Duncan administration negotiated last year with a private recycler could take taxpayers for a multimillion-dollar ride over the 10-year life of the contract.
Duncan will begin an extensive public relations campaign Wednesday to urge residents to use their blue bins more and reach the 50 percent goal set by the County Council in 1992.
The internal report says Duncan has his work cut out for him: The county's recycling rate dropped from 31 percent of its trash in 1997 to 26 percent last year.
"The staff believes that achieving 50 percent recycling by the year 2000 is extremely unlikely," said the 19-page report.
A County Council committee refused Thursday to go along with a Department of Public Works and Transportation recommendation to pad the recycling total with 20 tons of incinerator ash.
"That's like midway through the game moving the goal posts because our kicker can't make a 40-yard attempt, he can only make a chip shot," said Council President Isiah Leggett. "You don't change the rules and then say we won."
Chaz Miller, a recycling expert and an official with the National Solid Waste Management Association, said any goal can be reached -- for a price.
"I think part of the problem is some Montgomery County politicians have become so obsessed with the goal that they'll pay anything," he said.
Despite the gloomy assessment, Wednesday's recycling bus tour and rally at Montgomery College will go on, said Duncan spokesman David Weaver.
"The 50 percent decision was a sound one," said Weaver. "Recycling, in some ways, is out of fashion. We need to remind the public that it is in fashion, that throwing out a bottle is the same as littering."
Nationally, there has been growing debate about the costs and environmental benefits of recycling. Recycling is more expensive than trash disposal, and some say it is not helping the environment.
A decade ago, when counties began initiating recycling programs, landfills were filling up and there were fears that the nation was running out of space for garbage. But in 1994, a Supreme Court decision deregulated the trash industry. That led to cheaper and, with tougher federal regulations, safer dumps.
Montgomery County, which boasts of its progressive programs, doesn't stack up well when its recycling efforts are compared with those in other counties. Preliminary reports prepared for the state Department of the Environment show participation ranges from Harford's 48 percent to Baltimore's 28 percent.
Weaver said the mixed-paper recycling contract will help push Montgomery to 50 percent.
Miller scoffs. "If their numbers are to be believed -- and I don't -- they will have the most successful mixed-paper program in the country, bar none," he said.
A cautious County Council committee, armed with the analysts' report, refused Thursday to recommend to the full council approval of the 10-year contract with Office Paper Systems Inc. of Gaithersburg for recycling mixed paper.
The contract would require Montgomery to provide 115,000 tons of paper a year to the company.
In the prospectus prepared for potential investors, the company estimated that the county would supply 89,000 tons in the first year of the contract, rising to a maximum of 99,000 tons by 2010.
The gap between the number in the contract and actual tonnage would cost the county $416,000 a year in penalties. The shortfall could increase penalties to $1 million if municipalities such as Takoma Park, Rockville and Gaithersburg operate their own programs, said analyst Aron Trombka.
Based on 89,000 tons a year, the county would pay Office Paper Systems $28 a ton. By contrast, Howard County is paying $8.75 a ton in the first of a five-year contract.
"We do a pretty good job of writing contracts," said Phil Bresee, coordinator of Howard County's recycling program. "This one is pretty tight."
Kevin Stearman, president of Office Paper Systems, tried to convince council members that improving market conditions would allow him to sell the county's mixed residential paper at almost twice the price in the contract, lowering the county's payment to his company.
He urged the committee to give him a unanimous endorsement so that the Maryland Energy Finance Administration could sell bonds for his project.
Skeptical council members
The analysts' report gave some council members pause.
"This has nothing to do with philosophy. I support recycling," said Blair Ewing, a Silver Spring Democrat. "But I am not prepared to go to any length to achieve our goal."
Percentage of garbage recycled in 1998, from preliminary estimates in reports to the Maryland Department of the Environment:
Harford County: 48 percent
Anne Arundel: 39 percent
Howard County: 36 percent
Carroll County: 35 percent
Baltimore County: 31 percent
Baltimore: 28 percent
Montgomery County: 26 percent