Sorting out the pros and cons of recycling

May 12, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

Amid the clatter and dust of huge machines connected by conveyor belts and catwalks, the newspapers, plastic bags, cardboard, cans and bottles come flying at workers who frantically pluck unwanted items from the recycling stream.

Screens and spinning, star-shaped black plastic devices separate newspaper from cans and bottles. The fast-rotating stars push the paper higher up an inclined screen; the heavier, smaller cans and bottles tumble down to a different level.

The plant uses other sorting devices, including magnets and ultraviolet optical scanners that trigger blasts of air to separate plastic bottles from the rest of the items. Glass is sorted by color and crushed; plastic is shredded into small chips.

FOR THE RECORD - David A. Taylor, manager of Recycle America's Elkridge processing plant, was incompletely identified in an article published Saturday.
The Sun regrets the errors.

One of the area's largest such centers, the 50,000-square-foot Recycle America plant in Elkridge is also at the cutting edge of recycling. The Howard County plant is part of a trend that permits a homeowner to load glass, bottles, paper and plastic into a single container to be sorted at the plant - a system called "single-stream" recycling that a number of area jurisdictions have adopted or are considering.

Supporters of the idea point to statistics that suggest more people will participate in recycling if they don't have to maintain separate containers for their waste. It also reduces the costs for local governments, which can use less expensive trucks if they can keep the waste material together.

But critics say it is inefficient and diminishes the usefulness of the materials that are collected.

The Elkridge plant takes in so much material that the speed required to process it degrades the quality of what is sorted, said Neil Seldman, president of the Institute of Local Self Reliance, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit.

"The paper is contaminated by different types of paper in the same bale," he said.

Seldman believes Howard County should build its own recycling facility staffed with county workers, as Montgomery County has.

Instead, Howard - along with a number of other jurisdictions, including Carroll and Anne Arundel counties and Washington, D.C. - allow residents to mix their recyclables, and then truck them to the Elkridge plant, which opened last year.

Taylor said the Elkridge plant is a state-of-the-art, mechanized facility that does a good job of separating materials for resale. "All the [paper] products we make go directly to a mill where they're turned back into new paper products," he said.

Glass, especially, can take a beating with single-stream recycling, according to Tim Goodman, a consultant who studied the system in Minnesota for environmental officials there last year. Goodman said one glass container manufacturer saw a 50 percent reduction in the amount of glass coming from recyclers.

"Because everything is in one container, you have more problems with contamination. Glass gets embedded with paper and there is a degradation of materials," he said. When collected together, more of the material ends up in a landfill, he said.

"More communities are opting for single stream because they are focusing on the collection end more so than processing of it," Goodman said. "They are looking for a cost-effective process that is going to divert more materials from households, but diversion is not necessarily equal to recycling."

The move to single stream started in the late 1990s on the West Coast, he said.

Montgomery County, which operates its own processing plant in Rockville and does not use the Elkridge facility, is evaluating whether to switch to single stream, said Joe O'Donnell, Montgomery's program manager for solid waste.

Single stream means trash trucks can collect recyclables, too, O'Donnell said. The trucks that collect paper in Montgomery County cost $50,000 each more for equipment to keep the paper and other materials separate, he said.

"You do have to make trade-offs in life. The way we do it keeps the paper pure," O'Donnell said, but single stream "makes it easier on the resident."

Neither Baltimore nor Baltimore County uses single stream. They collect paper one day and plastic and paper and metal on another, and neither is planning to change, officials said.

"The problem is ... narrow alleys and rowhouse situations. It's difficult to get a truck up there," said Kurt Kocher, spokesman for Baltimore's Public Works Department.

Baltimore no longer takes recycling material to the Elkridge plant. After a contract dispute, the city diverted its recycling early this year to Baltimore County's publicly owned plant in Cockeysville and to a private plant in Gaithersburg.

Howard County accounts for about 12 percent of what is brought to the Elkridge facility, although that number could grow if plans by the county to boost recycling by using large, blue, wheeled bins are successful.

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