City curbside recycling temporarily off trash heap after mayor, activists meet

O'Malley seeks to make program profitable

April 11, 2001|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson and Gady A. Epstein | Kimberly A.C. Wilson and Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

The city's "blue bag" curbside recycling program might be spared the budget-cutting knife after all.

Mayor Martin O'Malley gave local environmental activists 30 days yesterday to devise a plan to make the recycling program profitable -- a goal activists believe they can reach.

"I'm optimistic," O'Malley said after meeting yesterday afternoon with more than a half-dozen recycling advocates.

O'Malley's preliminary budget plan called for cutting curbside collection of glass, metals and plastics to save the city as much as $500,000 a year, part of a larger effort to cut tens of millions of dollars in spending to balance next year's budget.

News of the proposed cut was met with fierce criticism by environmentalists, and about 50 protesters picketed City Hall on Monday.

At yesterday's 45-minute meeting, O'Malley challenged activists to form an ad hoc committee and, with the help of business groups, create an income-generating recycling program that would gross the half-million dollars needed to cover the cost of the program.

The meeting signaled to David M. Baker of the Baltimore Activists Coalition that blue-bag collection could endure.

"Clearly, the mayor has learned from the citizens that [eliminating the program] is not an option," Baker said after the meeting. "The question was, `Before we ax it, what can we do to make it work?'"

O'Malley also said after the meeting that he recognized resuming the blue-bag collection program at a later date could be costly, as advocates argue.

"It's expensive to start it back up again, so dollars you save by closing it down might be dollars you lose later by starting it back up," he said in an interview.

Describing the meeting as "positive and very productive," Baker said all were eager to help the city duplicate the success of regional recycling programs, including Baltimore County's.

Activists agree they need to find a way to increase participation by residents and business owners who might not be aware of the economic and environmental costs of not recycling. The activists blame the low participation rate -- estimated by city officials at 8 percent to 10 percent of Baltimore households -- on a failure to promote the program.

"I know that if you get your message out there and you create a buzz, then things kind of take on a life of their own," Baker said.

Terry J. Harris of the Cleanup Coalition said he was confident the new committee could develop a plan that goes further than the mayor's target.

Under the administration's original recommendation, the city would continue to collect mixed paper at curbside and would use drop-off locations for glass, metals and plastics, beginning July 1.

The committee has until May 10 to deliver an outline of suggestions for making the program profitable.

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