The Board of County Commissioners approved next steps for the Fair Trash Reduction, or FuTuRe, program on Thursday: Phase III, the New Windsor pilot program.
During the pilot phase, residents of New Windsor — the town that volunteered to participate — will pay for what they throw away in the trash, but not for what they recycle, with a system that treats trash disposal like metered utilities. They would purchase designated trash bags that hold up to 33 gallons with a 30-pound weight limit, and the cost of the bag would directly pay for its disposal.
“Essentially all the residents [in Carroll County] are paying a flat rate to their tax bill [right now],” Dusty Hilbert, chief of the Sold Waste Bureau, said after Thursday’s commissioner meeting.
“A smaller household that may only put out one bag of waste a week is paying the same for trash disposal as the larger household that might put out five or six bags a week,” he said. “So really, the small household that's only putting out one or two bags is subsidizing disposal for the other households that put out a lot of waste.”
Hilbert said using the FuTuRe program would make it more fair and encourage people to produce less garbage.
But because residents pay for their trash disposal in their annual taxes each fiscal year — taxes for fiscal year 2019, which began in July, have already been paid — Hilbert said part of the pilot program will involve returning to New Windsor residents what they already paid for waste disposal for the upcoming year in the form of rebate cards in two disbursements.
Since the pilot program is slated to last for nine months starting Oct. 1, if everything goes according to plan, he said, rebates would come July 2019 when tax season comes back around.
Commissioners said this week that although the program is well-intentioned, it will be hard to measure success in a time where recycling rates are on the decline. Since China stopped taking more than 40 percent of United States recyclables in 2016, demand for the reusable products has gone down.
“The recycling market has been fluctuating between slightly positive to mostly negative, where we lose money,” said Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4. “Where are we now?”
Hilbert said right now it costs the county $50 per ton to recycle — double what the cost was only five months ago, and much more than it was last year when the county still was able to make a profit on recycling.
He also said the county earns about $9 per ton of trash.
Revenues collected from trash go into the solid waste enterprise fund and must be used exclusively to manage solid waste.
“So it does beg the question — you’ve done very good work on this — but with the market conditions right now, does this make sense?” Rothschild said. “We are going to increase recycling, knowing every additional ton we are going to lose $50?”
Hilbert said recycling more is not the only result of the FuTuRe program. Residents will also be more inclined to divert waste elsewhere and donate goods instead of throwing them away.
Commissioner Doug Howard, R-District 5, said maybe there could be a future conversation about putting a fee on recycling to help offset the market costs, since the rates change monthly.
“We don’t have to eat all the difference,” he said. “I mean, at the end of the day we can’t sustain something where the costs are going to keep going up and we get no revenue.”
He then said he had a “bad question.”
“Could we — there may be a thousand reasons why not,” he said, “could we landfill recycling until the market gets better?”
“That would be a difficult sell to the state,” Hilbert responded.
Carroll County is not alone in battling this issue, Public Works Director Jeff Castonguay said, and it doesn’t change that the county and state of Maryland have recycling goals.
“So let’s get in a time machine,” Rothschild said, “fast forward to next year. We find recycling is up 10 percent and trash is down 15 percent — but now those metrics would amount to greater costs to the taxpayers.
“I'm not saying we should do this or not,” he said, “but what is success?”
Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, said that although the immediate costs are in the forefront of their minds, there could be savings from putting less trash in the landfill and removing less trash from the county.
“It would be a savings,” Frazier said. “Not immediate, but one you'd see in the future because the landfill has a limited space, no matter how well we use it. Landfills are extremely, from my understanding, expensive to permit and run. You can’t look at it just from this perspective right here.”
And what about market rates within the next nine months, Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, wanted to know.
“Is there any indication at all that the [recycling] market is going to go the other way,” he asked, “or at least get better over the next nine months for recycling?”
Hilbert said, although he couldn’t say when, “the market has to get better.”
“Our economy is turning around,” he said. “There is a strong likelihood that domestic facilities and domestic markets will take advantage of these lower prices and the market will balance out. We are at the breaking point.”
Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, said what they had in front of them Thursday was a study in how to reduce waste and they should see what information it provided.
“So we have a pilot,” Weaver said, “and that's what it is: a pilot.”