Costs of reduced recycling weighed

`A political issue' for city, with ecologic, economic pros, cons

March 25, 2001|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

If the O'Malley administration follows through on a plan to end curbside pickup of "blue bags" for glass, plastic and metal, the politicians could end up suffering more than the environment does.

"Recycling is a political issue. It's never been an environmental issue if you really want to look at it coldly," said Michele Raymond, publisher of the newsletter Recycling Laws International. "We are not, technically, running out of landfill space right now.

"But the little old lady who's been putting out her recyclables for the last 10 years is going to be screaming at the city government," Raymond said.

Recycling is the most expensive way to take out the garbage, although no method is cheap. Recycling has real environmental benefits, experts say, but most of the financial benefits go to companies and communities far from the city. At home, those benefits are mostly intangible.

Wary city officials from the mayor on down are soft-pedaling the plan.

"This is something that is just on the table," said Kurt Kocher, a spokesman for the city Department of Public Works. "It may never happen."

Under the cost-cutting recommendation, the city would continue to collect paper at curbside and would establish drop-off locations for glass, metal and paper, beginning July 1.

It's unclear how much money the city would save by eliminating blue-bag pickup. Officials at the Department of Public Works initially said the cutbacks would save more than $500,000.

But Kocher said Friday that figure does not factor in the additional money the city will spend in "tipping fees" to get rid of the extra waste by burning it at the privately owned BRESCO energy-producing incinerator on Russell Street.

Kocher said the city has no estimate of how many tons of bottles and cans will be dropped off at the collection centers and how many will be dumped in the trash. Without such an estimate, it's hard to know how much more garbage will end up in the incinerator and what that will cost the city.

The environmental and economic costs and benefits of recycling are not constant. They vary from year to year and place to place, according to factors such as the availability of open space for landfills and water for washing, the cost of transportation and energy, and the market prices for recycled materials.

In Baltimore's case, the immediate environmental costs of the change will be low, said Robin Davidov, executive director of the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority, which advises the city and seven counties on waste management.

Unlike New York City, which has stopped and restarted curbside recycling several times, Baltimore does not rely on landfills for its garbage disposal. Landfills are the least desirable way to get rid of trash - at best a waste of space and at worst a pollution source, Davidov said.

Using the BRESCO plant is a more benign method of disposal, because it produces energy. Although the glass, plastic and metal won't be used as productively as they would be if recycled, they won't go completely to waste, Davidov said.

The plant now removes and resells metals from the city's garbage, and probably will end up removing more, Davidov said. The plastic, which is made mostly of petroleum, will produce energy as it burns; the glass will not. The ash from those wastes and from garbage will be used to cover trash in the city's landfill on Quarantine Road near the Key Bridge.

The real environmental cost would be the loss of those recycled materials. After years of booms and crashes, the market for recycled glass, plastic, metal and paper has been stable for several years, and demand continues to grow, industry experts said.

Glass is hard to clean and sort, and not useful for much besides making more glass. But recycling metals, especially aluminum, reduces the environmental damage from mining and conserves the energy used in manufacturing, and that's reflected in relatively high prices.

"It takes so much energy to mine aluminum ore and manufacture new aluminum from the ore, as opposed to being able to make it from the recycled aluminum," said Richard Keller of Maryland Environmental Services, a private company that markets recyclables. "That's why metals are such valuable items."

Some types of recycled plastic have little usefulness and fetch very low prices; others are rising in value.

Manufacturers of carpets are "desperate" for recycled plastic from soft-drink bottles, Raymond said.

"They can use 200 percent of what's being collected now, so it's a shame to stop collecting it," she said. And a company in Winchester, Va., "will buy all the bags they can get their hands on. They turn it into lumber, and they can't get enough."

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