Bin There, Done That

Editorial Notebook

July 18, 2009|By Michael Cross-Barnet

Call me the mad recycler.

It's been an obsession of mine for decades. I'm the guy who goes around the tables after the church dinner, collecting those red plastic cups - you never noticed they have that little recycling symbol, did you? - and bringing them home in a plastic bag while my family members indulgently roll their eyes.

I invented a recycling game with my kids: Hey, who can find the little raised triangle on this container? (The entertainment value is increased by the fact that a lot of packaging manufacturers do their darnedest to make the thing practically invisible.)

I'm not sure where this passion comes from. Such things can defy explanation. When I was a young reporter years ago in Wellesley, Mass., a public works official named Mr. Gleason once took me to see something of which he was immensely proud: the town's state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant. "Mike," he said, "I just gotta tell you something, and this is from the heart - I just really like sewage."

There you have it. I like recycling the way Mr. Gleason liked sewage. And so, as you can imagine, I was thrilled when it was announced this year that under Mayor Sheila Dixon's "cleaner, greener Baltimore" concept, the city would move to a "One Plus One" waste removal system: one garbage pickup (up to 96 gallons) and one recycling pickup (unlimited amount) per week.

That day has finally arrived; "One Plus One" was rolled out on Tuesday. So, what does the mad recycler think?

Well, I have to give the city good grades for outreach. Officials distributed multiple notices to homeowners and businesses. They spread the word through the public schools. They visited The Baltimore Sun and explained the new procedures at length to our Editorial Board.

And Mayor Sheila Dixon certainly deserves credit for proposing a sensible way for the city to save money and help the environment - although she knew full well that the decision would be politically unpopular.

And yet, the question remains: Why was my full-to-overflowing recycling bin, which I placed at the end of my driveway Wednesday night, still sitting untouched when I left for work Friday? The notice I received in the mail clearly states that my day for recycling pickup is Thursday. I couldn't help observing, though, that many of my neighbors didn't put their containers out until Thursday evening. What gives?

Celeste Amato is the woman with answers. The media and communications director for the Department of Public Works apologized for the problem in my neighborhood and promised that it would be remedied quickly. (We'll see.) She pointed out that both workers and residents were in for big adjustments in their routines. After decades of doing things a certain way, it's not easy to switch gears overnight.

"The citizens and the city are both adjusting to a major change," she said. And encouraging people to recycle more of their waste is actually the least of the city's problems at this point; the bigger deal is managing the landfill-bound garbage. No one likes the thought of their chicken bones and crab shells sitting around for almost a week waiting to be picked up, especially in the heat of summer. That's where the importance of using garbage cans with lids that seal properly comes in.

There have been problems this week, Ms. Amato acknowledged, in what she tactfully describes as "some of our more trash-challenged communities." People are dumping bags of garbage in alleys - a big no-no - and often on the wrong day. If they keep it up, they can expect a citation.

Ms. Amato points out that almost all cities of Baltimore's size pick up trash once a week, and she insists that "everybody can manage their trash, even the stinky, sticky stuff."

She imagines a whole city full of people like ... well, like me: making sure their newspapers and other paper products go in the recycling bin, checking the Web site (cleanergreenerbaltimore.gov) if they're not sure what items can be recycled. Ms. Amato expects it to take a good three months for people to alter their behavior on a large scale.

"There are plenty of complainers, but there are also plenty of people happy about getting their recycling picked up once a week," she points out.

Count the mad recycler as one of them.

- Michael Cross-Barnet

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