City dumps blue bags

Curbside pickup of glass, plastics to end after June 30

Budget deficit noted

Officials hoping to reinstate plan when funds permit

March 20, 2001|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

It appears Baltimore's budget woes have laid waste to another victim: curbside recycling of bottles, cans and other plastics, glass and metals.

The city plans to discontinue the pickup of so-called "blue bags" of bottles and cans by June 30, saving more than $500,000 during the next fiscal year, officials said yesterday.

Curbside recycling was a major goal of local environmental and community activists for years before the program started in 1990. Recycling pickup of mixed paper will not be affected by the cut, and the city will maintain drop-off sites for glass, plastic and metal.

"We really didn't have a choice. The city has a major budget deficit, and we've got to make some cuts," said S. Dale Thompson, acting chief of education and enforcement for the Bureau of Solid Waste. "This was not a decision that came easy to the director [of public works] or the mayor."

The program is the latest city service poised to fall prey to the budget knife. Mayor Martin O'Malley has asked for spending cuts from every city department, except the police, to help close a budget gap of tens of millions of dollars.

O'Malley said this month that he might have to raise taxes or lay off city workers to balance the budget.

Environmentalists lamented the news yesterday, saying the city should find other places to make cuts.

"It seems to me that we're going backwards at a time when the country really needs to do more to conserve and save the environment," said Ajax Eastman, a longtime environmental activist who pushed for years for curbside recycling. "It just doesn't make any sense to me."

Kenneth J. Strong, a former public works official who was instrumental in starting the curbside program, said the short-term cut could contribute to more long-term costs for the city. "One kind of savings that recycling provided isn't one that you see in a current operating budget, but it's the life span of the landfill," said Strong, who works at the Community Law Center in Baltimore. "The next time we have to build a landfill from scratch in Baltimore City, the cost will be astronomical."

Public works officials say that about 8 percent to 10 percent of Baltimore households participate in the blue-bag program, while about 15 percent participate in mixed-paper recycling. But the blue-bag program is more costly.

"We collect possibly 2,400 tons, which costs us about $220-and- something a ton just to collect," said Joseph A. Kolodziejski, chief of the Bureau of Solid Waste, who said the weight of blue bags has decreased with the increased use of plastics instead of metals or glass. "There really is no weight in these blue bags, and the cost of doing business just went up."

The Department of Public Works considered another area for a major cut - reducing trash collection to once a week - but that would have provoked more opposition and would have required a change in the city charter.

City officials say they hope to reinstate the blue-bag program in future years, when they believe the budget picture will be brighter.

"When the city's population starts increasing and our revenue base starts increasing because of the investments we've made in a safer and cleaner city, then we'll look at reinstituting it," said O'Malley, who noted the City Council has not offered input on the planned cut.

Strong said he worries about the difficulties of reinstating a program that requires a lot of education - both of residents and of sanitation workers. He also mourned the apparent passing of a program that some community groups battled hard to get started. "A lot of work went into establishing the blue-bag program, so it's sad," he said.

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