Public recycling in city faces uphill climb

Cost, potential misuse discourage Baltimore from installing bins

October 07, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

You can do it in Seattle, Chicago and Athens, Ga. But on the streets of downtown Baltimore, don't look for recycling bins to take that empty plastic water bottle or already-read newspaper off your hands. There aren't any.

As a growing number of cities give pedestrians the same recycling options that many residents have, Baltimore has opted out.

City officials say one deterrent is cost: Baltimore nearly trashed its residential curbside recycling program this year for financial reasons. Another is a fear, based on dismal experience, that such a program would fail here.

Then there is this nettlesome problem: Many people don't or won't even put garbage in its place.

"Our first goal is just to get people to put trash in the proper container," said Kurt L. Kocher, spokesman for the city's Department of Public Works.

To that end, the agency plans a "massive campaign" aimed at reforming, or at least chastening, litterbugs.

Meanwhile, people who would recycle if they had access to bins say they will continue to trash recyclable items. Like Kari Patterson who on a recent crisp morning admitted she would probably toss her water bottle in one of the 60-odd trash cans that line the Inner Harbor's brick promenade from the Maryland Science Center to the Power Plant.

"It's convenience," said Patterson, a tourist from Rapid City, S.D., visiting with her mother and aunt.

Officials in cities with public recycling bins speak about promoting environmentally friendly behavior, even if it means spending more taxpayer money.

Seattle is one of more than a dozen cities, many on the West Coast, that have taken that step. Others include Auburn, Wash.; Bend, Ore.; and Oakland, Calif.

"It's becoming more and more prevalent," said John Skinner, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, which represents local governments and companies. "People recycle at home more and more, and they expect to be able to recycle in public places."

In Seattle, 58 bins dot the city, half of them downtown. The bins are set up in pairs: one for newspapers and one for cans and bottles. Each pair stands next to regular trash cans.

A study by the city showed that because about half the litter picked up in Seattle's trash cans was recyclable, installing bins in the city could reduce the amount of garbage bound for the Oregon Chicago's bins do not accept bottles or cans because of concerns about broken glass and because people scavenging for cans to recycle could damage the receptacles, said Jessica Rio, spokeswoman for the city's Department of Environment.

One issue that concerns Baltimore is "contamination" - the risk that people will toss garbage in a container meant for recycling.

Baltimore has firsthand knowledge of contamination from past experiments with public-place recycling.

At Artscape two years ago, bins were set out for aluminum cans. Similar attempts were made last year and the year before at the annual book festival.

The results were discouraging, said Dale Thompson, acting chief of education and enforcement at the Department of Public Works.

"What we found is we were getting more trash than any material we could really recycle," she said. "Generally what we were finding is people were dropping in bottles but also paper plates - anything they had in their hands."

Baltimore-area environmental activists say they would welcome the sight of recycling bins downtown. Alice "Ajax" Eastman, one of those local activists, said, "I'm supportive of anything that's going to help recycling."

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