Recycling An Idea For Residents' Convenience

Baltimore County Is Latest In The Region To Switch To 'Single-stream' Recycling

Jump In Participation Expected

February 01, 2010|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,

Inside this sprawling Elkridge warehouse, a system of conveyor belts, screens, magnets and human hands sorts bins of recycling - more than 1,000 tons on an average day - collected from the Baltimore region's alleys and driveways.

The Waste Management facility does the work, sorting out paper, bottles and plastic, so residents don't have to. This "single-stream" recycling, which has become increasingly widespread, encourages more people to participate, public officials say. Though communities benefit economically and environmentally from recycling, residents seem to respond most to convenience.

Baltimore City followed Howard, Anne Arundel and Carroll counties in switching to single-stream recycling in 2008, allowing residents to dump all their recyclables in one container. Together, they helped the state meet its goal of diverting more than 40 percent of waste from the landfill.

Now, Baltimore County, which will begin single-stream recycling today, is hoping for its own increase.

"People are recycling in areas where we never thought they would," said Valentina Ukwuoma, Baltimore's Bureau of Solid Waste director. "Now, we hear about it if we miss a pickup."

The region joins the nation in moving to convenience in recycling. About half of Americans now have curbside programs, according to the National Recycling Coalition. That diverts about a third of the nation's waste from landfills, a number that has doubled in the past 15 years.

Waste Management Recycle America, which runs the Elkridge facility, estimates that collections jump about 30 percent in each municipality that launches single-stream recycling. Increasing the frequency of pickup, handing out recycling bins and adding new items to the list of acceptable materials also increase participation.

Area counties that wanted to offer single-stream recycling pushed Waste Management to open the 50,000-square-foot Elkridge facility in 2006.

It's one of the most technologically advanced in the country, with 95 percent of the work done by machines. It's also among the largest facilities by volume, according to the company. Inside, large conveyor belts take materials through increasingly smaller screens that filter cardboard and paper from plastic and metal. Magnets pull out tin, and a magnetic field pushes aluminum away from plastic.

A handful of workers pull out dirty items and plastic bags that clog the machinery several times a day. Sorted materials are baled and put on trucks to their end users, who will reject more than 3 percent contamination, which has never happened.

Maryland began requiring municipalities to recycle in 1988. Residents were throwing away almost 7 pounds of trash a day, enough to build a wall 3 feet wide and 6 feet tall for 4,387 miles, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment. It costs the city $67, for example, to dispose of each ton of waste.

In the past four years, the state has met its waste diversion goals, reaching about 44 percent in 2008, the last year data is available, the department said.

Since July, when Baltimore switched to weekly trash and recycling pickup, the amount collected from curbside bins has jumped from about 650 tons every two weeks to more than 1,000.

And the city pays nothing, or even makes money, when it drops off material in Elkridge, depending on what Waste Management can sell it for. Prices, however, are inconsistent. They hit lows in the fall of 2008 and only began recovering in the summer, leaving little for the municipalities until this fall, said David E. Taylor, a district manager for the company.

For example, prices for aluminum, which goes to Anheuser-Busch to become new beer cans, dropped to $1,400 a ton before recovering to $2,400. Plastic bottles that go to Coca-Cola to become new bottles dropped to $100 a ton and later rose to about $900. And newspaper, which comprises 70 percent of the recycled material and becomes new newsprint, was bringing in nothing and is now commanding closer to $95 a ton.

The facility also sells 20 tons of plastic bags a week, though officials would rather residents not package material in them.

In all, an average of 1,150 tons a day of recycling are processed in Elkridge - or "1,150 tons of materials that are not going to landfills," said Taylor.

Despite the popularity of recycling, the switch in the city to weekly pickup didn't come without some fuss from residents because the city also reduced trash pickup from twice a week to just once. And as crews adjusted to new routes and schedules, the number of homes they missed "was off the charts," Ukwuoma said.

She said crews have reduced the number of misses to about 100 to 200 of the 210,000 homes they service every week, according to calls to the city's 311 help line. At the same time, she said other crews dedicated to cleaning alleys have eliminated the number of delinquent responses to resident calls to almost zero. A response is considered late after 14 days.

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