Don't throw recycling into the trash basket

April 04, 2001|By Kenneth J. Strong

RECYCLING IS essential to the future of our planet. It offers a practical solution to a critical environmental problem. Fortunately, recycling is easy to do and everyone can make an important contribution."

These are the first sentences you read if you visit the recycling Web site of the Baltimore City Department of Public Works. These are good, strong statements that were true. Unfortunately, recycling will be less easy, and the contribution everyone can make will be curtailed, if the collection of blue bags ends this summer.

When the blue-bag program began 10 years ago, significant dollars and substantial effort were expended. Recycling calendars and sample blue bags were taken door-to-door to 233,000 households. Supermarket chains were cajoled into offering blue bags, as well as paper bags. About $250,000 was invested in an advertising campaign. Collection crews were trained and retrained about the new program.

Most importantly hundreds of hours were spent in schools, churches and community group meetings promoting recycling, its importance to the environment and to the city. The loss of these investments in the blue-bag program ought to be considered in calculating the purported savings in stopping it. To restart the program at a later date will not be simple or cost-free.

If Baltimore City followed the lead of Baltimore County and marketed its recycled paper, bottles and cans for a profit, we would be talking today about how to enlarge the blue-bag program.

Baltimore County collects more than $1.7 million a year from the sale of its mixed paper and mixed containers. If the city were marketing the contents of its blue bags as successfully as the county, it would earn about $400,000. Alternatively, if the city ends the blue-bag program, it will pay about $144,000 to discard its unrecycled bottles and cans.

Five years ago, we estimated the next city landfill would cost upwards of $75 million to construct if you could even find a place to build it. Suffice it to say that the life span of the Quarantine Road Landfill is precious.

Estimated to end around 2014, that life span could be lengthened significantly by the recycling of construction and demolition debris, creating recycling stations for small haulers to unload mattresses, wood, metals and yard waste and expanding citizen participation in Baltimore's residential recycling program. The blue-bag program plays a role, albeit a modest one, in landfill preservation.

For more than 10 years, the Department of Public Works has wanted to be in a position in which a once-weekly trash collection system was practical and politically palatable. There would be substantial collection cost savings in such a system.

I don't believe that day ever will come without a vigorous recycling program and more effective strategies for keeping the city clean.

More citizens should be answering the clarion call of Mayor Martin O'Malley to join in citywide cleanups and community cleanups year-round. And more citizens should recycle their bottles and cans in blue bags to pave the way.

Communities that recycle enthusiastically and engage in self-help sanitation don't really need two trash days a week.

We need to revisit the Ten Year Solid Waste Plan for Baltimore City (even if it's only been five years since the last one) and think holistically about waste reduction, recycling, optimal waste-to-energy incineration, landfill preservation, and sanitation strategies.

As the introduction to the last plan said in 1995, "we must work together to reduce the amount of waste we generate, recycle to the fullest extent possible and assure that the remaining waste is disposed of in an environmentally safe manner."

Those should still be our goals and the blue-bag program can still play a role in reaching them. It would be a waste to end it.

Kenneth J. Strong was Baltimore City's recycling coordinator from 1991 to 1994 and the head of the Bureau of Solid Waste from 1994 to 1995. He is currently the director of research and policy for the Community Law Center.

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