Less trash collection and more recycling


March 26, 2000|By Norris West

HAVE you ever managed to squeeze a week's worth of trash into one 30-gallon can?

In recent months, to my surprise, my family has accomplished that feat. Accomplishing that for a family of five would have been unthinkable before curbside recycling.

We never thought we were wasteful. In fact, using resources sparingly is something that was drummed into me during summers on my family's old-fashioned Eastern Shore farm.

My mother, brother and I would spend two or three weeks on the 64-acre homestead every summer. We'd feed pigs, harvest crops and save water.

The old farmhouse had no running water, so every drop we pumped from the well was golden. Cleanliness was indeed next to godliness, but nothing was to be wasted while washing, cooking or drinking. It was a big contrast to summer days in Philadelphia, where the neighborhood kids, me included, would turn on the fire hydrants when police cars weren't around to bathe prodigiously in coolness.

When I returned from the farm each year, I would be a bit more aware of conserving water -- fire hydrants excepted. And that awareness sticks with me to this day.

Conservation remains important as we consider another precious resource: landfill space. Landfills have limited life, and the best way to prolong them is to break the trash habit and recycle.

Most of us recycle, but many of us still toss reusable materials in the trash can.

I used to think our family recycled well. Like everyone else, we dutifully take our newspapers, bottles and cans to the designated spot where everyone in the townhouse community brings trash and recycling for pickup.

Then we moved to a neighborhood where we put our trash and recycling right outside our homes. Comparisons with neighbors were stunning. We take a considerable amount of newspapers, cans and bottles, but my next-door neighbor builds towers of recyclables.

For him, it's routine.

"If you build in the discipline to the point where it becomes a habit, recycling is effortless," said my neighbor. "It doesn't take but a second to rip out the liner, throw that away, and break down the Post Toasties box."

We improved our recycling habits when our county reduced trash collection from twice a week to once a week and started curbside pickups for reusable stuff. Most of us need some prodding before we change our habits.

Prodding is about to come to Anne Arundel County. Right now, the county is among the very few jurisdictions with twice-a-week trash collection. But county waste management officials say the second day collections are inefficient -- cans are often only half full -- and half of the trash collected is recyclable.

Weekly collections could save the county hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, perhaps as much as $1 million a year, said James J. Pittman, deputy director of the county's Waste Management Services.

Indeed, the financial incentive is important to a county concerned with its fiscal health even in these Roaring 2000s. But financial considerations aren't as important as preserving space in the county's 565-acre Millersville landfill. The new schedule should encourage residents to become more aware of what they throw out. It will be difficult for the children and grandchildren of residents to find new landfill sites after Millersville is full. They're filling Cell 8 in the nine-cell dump.

The county aims to boost recycling from 26 percent to half of the material it collects. As much as 60 percent of used materials can be reused. The 50 percent goal may be optimistic, but the county should have no problem improving the amount it recycles now.

Some residents are certain to complain about the county cutting in half the number of trash collection days. There will be concerns about keeping around smelly garbage like shellfish for a week instead of four days. But these problems are manageable.

Molly Cannon, manager of Anne Arundel's waste management community services, is meeting with community groups to discuss the new trash-recycling schedule, seek feedback and offer suggestions.

Here's one thought:

"If you do recycling, you don't need two trash collections a week," Ms. Cannon said, "because the stuff you recycle comes out of your trash can."

The new schedule has been proven elsewhere. Neighboring jurisdictions such as Howard, Montgomery and Baltimore counties reduced collections from semi-weekly to weekly years ago. The adjustment has not been that difficult.

"The criticism has been less than what we were truly geared up for," said Steven Hudgins, chief of operations for the Howard County Bureau of the Environment. "We really thought there would be a real outcry."

Once-a-week trash collections may be rough at the start, but it's a lot easier than carrying buckets of water from the farmhouse pump. I couldn't imagine living without running water now, not even for a couple of weeks.

But recycling more and putting out the trash only once a week -- and successfully getting it all into one can every once in a while -- has come to feel quite natural.

Norris West writes editorials for The Sun from Anne Arundel County.

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