Penny-wise trash disposal

Our view: Ocean City ends recycling to save money, but at what cost?

April 21, 2010

Tourism is going green. In Virginia Beach, businesses clamor to be designated as eco-friendly under a statewide program. At Baltimore's Fairfield Inn & Suites, the staff wear uniforms made from recycled bottles.

Small wonder travel agents are getting requests from customers who are interested in green travel options. Even if that's only a small percentage, the impact could be enormous in a $645 billion U.S. travel industry.

That's what makes it surprising that Ocean City, one of Maryland's most popular tourism destinations, recently decided to end its trash recycling program as of next Monday. The decision will save the resort town $1 million annually but could prove costly to its public image.

Like other communities, Ocean City has been facing cutbacks in government-provided services due to the downturn in the economy. And recycling had proven to be costly. Instead of making money from such things as cardboard and aluminum; the town was paying much more to dispose of its unwanted recyclables than its regular trash.

Town officials say the material will now be shipped to the Covanta Energy incinerator in Chester, Pa., a facility that reportedly produces enough electricity to power 8,000 homes. But while burning waste may be better than sending it to a landfill, most environmental groups say it's not as clean an option as recycling since it pumps contaminants into the air and produces ash for the landfill.

Ocean City's choice means that beach-bound tourists will have to live with the fact that any newspaper, bottle or package they leave behind is unlikely to be recycled (although incinerators generally remove metal wastes for reuse). Many visitors probably won't be bothered by that (or even be aware), but some will undoubtedly be unhappy.

Could it mean some tourists will opt for places like Virginia Beach instead? Surely, there's some reason why national hotel chains are opening new buildings that meet strict environmental design codes, using eco-certified cleaning products and energy-efficient lighting. Or why a growing number of restaurants offer only seafood from sustainable fisheries. Or why some states are marketing vacationing close to home as a way to reduce one's carbon footprint.

Is $1 million too much to spend to ensure Ocean City's reputation as a clean — and green — place to vacation? Residents would be wise not to toss out their curbside blue recycling bins quite yet.

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