Harford County's recycling rate has been something of a point of pride for the county government since the curbside recycling was instituted about two decades ago.
To some extent, this pride is justified. The county has fairly proactive programs for collecting and dealing with electronics, household appliances, yard waste and other items that would take up a lot of space in the county's landfill. Also, it has a reasonably high rate of citizen participation in the curbside recycling program, which was made easier a few years ago when glass, metal, paper and plastic could also be put in a single recycling bin for collection.
The not-so-well kept secret of Harford County's exemplary "waste diversion rate" of 59 percent, however, is the result of a numbers game. Most of the non-recyclable trash picked up in Harford County doesn't go directly into the Scarboro Landfill, but first to an incinerator in Joppa that uses the burning process to generate steam that is sold to the Army for use on the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground.
The resulting ash, which weighs a good deal less than the trash it started as, ends up in the landfill. Many other counties dispose of trash directly, which weighs a good deal more.
Maryland's baseline formula for figuring recycling rates is tons of recycled materials divided by the total tons of landfill waste plus tons of recycled materials. Harford County ends up getting a bit of a break as a result of disposing mostly of trash ash rather than full weight garbage.
It's possibly as a result of the county's exemplary recycling numbers that it has been slow to boost recycling rates through new efforts, such as installing recycling collection cans at the dozens of parks and recreation facilities across the county.
That deficiency has been remedied lately, a move that can be cheered with the refrain: Better late than never.
It's worth pointing out on this front that Harford County faces a few hurdles in the near future with regard to its recycling efforts, owing to what is widely viewed as the imminent closure of the Joppa waste incinerator. More high-profile problems associated with this change in the county's public policies on garbage disposal have eclipsed the reality that recycling rates will decrease when the county's garbage is no longer turned into lightweight ash. The now-defunct plan to build a trash transfer station on Route 7 in Joppa is one of those high-profile problems. Another is working out the logistics of dealing with garbage now that it's clear there will be neither a trash transfer station nor an incinerator in the county's future.
The recycling issue is, however, an important one. Under the latest version of the state law on the subject, Harford County is obliged to have a recycling rate of 35 percent, as of 2012. It may well be that it will be able to reach that goal without doing anything once the incinerator closes, as the 59 percent rate achieved to date leaves a fair amount of room.
Still, moves like adding recycling containers in parks have the potential to make a difference. Another place the county could look to get its recycling numbers up would be devising a way to encourage business and industry to recycle more waste, especially paper waste. Granted, many businesses already engage in recycling, but their obligation is, with a few exceptions, no more than the obligation of the average person to separate waste for recycling.
A little effort on this front could go a long way toward increasing the recycling rate in Harford County.