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Abingdon / Edgewood

Regarding Harford's garbage collection policies [Editorial]

The state of affairs with regard to garbage collection and disposal in Harford County is one very much in need of organization, or we could find ourselves dealing with an unsavory situation.

In Maryland, there have been two primary approaches to dealing with garbage over the past few generations.

Many years ago, a hodgepodge of dumps were in place across the state. Some were in back yards and on farms, used only by the respective property owners. Some were government-owned. Some were private. In some places it was possible to hire garbage haulers to take trash to the nearest dumps. In more rural areas, getting a load to the dump was the responsibility of the garbage producer. Many of the dumps featured open burning of the trash and garbage.

This system, such as it was, ended up being replaced by a consolidated system of mostly government-owned sanitary landfills — which differ substantially from dumps insofar as they have fairly elaborate liners designed to prevent various toxins from finding their way into groundwater.

In some cases, the curbside collection of garbage became a government responsibility, the cost of which was rolled into local tax rates. Such has been the case within the municipal borders of Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace.

In other areas, curbside garbage collection became a private function, with haulers competing with each other (at least nominally) for individual household garbage collection contracts.

In Harford County's unincorporated areas – which is where most people in the county live — the private hauler system has been in place for the past several decades. Trash collected by private haulers operating exclusively in the county was transported to the county-owned and operated sanitary landfills. Initially, the landfill operation was funded through the tax rate, but as costs increased, a per-ton tipping fee was assessed against the haulers taking garbage to the landfill.

There are plenty of other complicating details, but such has been the situation for more than two decades.

In recent years, there have been a number of seismic shifts in the garbage collection and disposal situation. None has resulted in trash not being picked up, or in the need for garbage trains or barges from Harford County seeking destinations (which a consultant hired by the county in the 1970s warned would be needed), but without some action, such scenarios could become reality locally.

Key changes in the situation include:

• The Harford County Waste Disposal Center's landfill at Scarboro is rapidly reaching its capacity. The county government has made arrangements for garbage to be taken at a transfer station operated by Baltimore County in White Marsh.

• The county's arrangement with the Army, which buys steam generated at a quasi-public garbage incinerator, is about to expire. With the incinerator in operation, the county's need for waste disposal space is greatly reduced because ash takes up less space than trash. According to county officials, the Army has decided it does not want to continue the arrangement.

• Until a few years ago, the private garbage hauling business in Harford County was dominated by the locally-owned Harford Sanitation Services. That firm has since been purchased by a national garbage hauling company, Waste Management. Other national garbage hauling firms have entered the market, and a few local firms remain, as well. As a result, it is possible to see trucks from two or three or more differenthauling companies picking up trash on different schedules in a single neighborhood.

• Enter the state government, which has set a noble, but difficult, goal of having the state's waste totals be greatly reduced through recycling and other initiatives.

Possibly the wisest long-term approach to dealing with the rapidly evolving solid waste situation is to think of garbage not so much as a waste product that needs to be gotten rid of, but rather a potentially marketable resource rich in refined and concentrated materials: glass, plastic and metals, as well as organic components ranging from paper to food waste that can be processed in ways to generate products ranging from fertilizer to fuel alcohol.

Then there's the old standby of using garbage to fuel incinerators that can produce steam to generate electricity. It may be yesterday's green technology turned brown — hence part of the reason behind the impending closure of the county-Army waste disposal plant — but it's a practice that remains well-advanced and clean compared to landfills.

With regard to disposal of electronic products ranging from cell phones to radios to computers, there's even more potential for viewing garbage as a resource rather refuse. In addition to their glass and plastic casings, computers, electronic components and batteries also contain metals and a few rare and valuable elements, as well as some potentially harmful, but also potentially valuable chemicals.

Segregating electronic items from the rest of the garbage is an idea whose time has come, and one included in the county's latest waste proposal.

Just because separating components of household garbage is a good idea, however, doesn't mean it's one that will be implemented. Maryland, and many other states, have steadfastly refused to mandate deposit fees on bottles and cans, a practice used voluntarily by some soda bottlers up until about 25 years ago.

Some states – among them New York – charge deposits on bottles and cans. The result is people return bottles and cans to devices in grocery stores and receive refunds. It's rare to see bottles and cans on roadsides upstate because they're picked up and recycled by people looking to make a few extra nickels and dimes.

Doing away with landfills, and getting to a point of having Maryland be a zero waste state, is more than just a noble goal. It is something that can be done. But it can't be done if the only motivation is telling people it's a noble goal.

There must be a financial incentive. Charging bottle and can deposits, requiring scrap dealers to bid on metal and electronic wastes and devising ways to encourage the production of energy and fertilizer from garbage are ways of turning trash into treasure. And once trash becomes treasure, whenever one person wants to throw it out, there will be someone standing nearby willing to take it away or even pay to get it.

There's a long way to go, however, before such a vision can become a reality. For at least the next several years, something probably should be done to coordinate private garbage pickups. It's hard to imagine how individual companies can be truly profitable if they're picking up only the trash at a quarter or even a third of the homes they're driving past. Garbage collection is a function that falls into the category of natural monopoly and, as such, demands some sort of public oversight or coordination.

The county government is considering a system wherein private firms would bid on collection contracts covering various county sectors. It's not something that's been tried locally, but it is worth a try and probably a better all-around option than having three garbage trucks visiting a single neighborhood on different schedules.

While the county has been wise to approach the problem before a crisis arises, and some good ideas have been floated, it is unfortunate that the default position is one that presumes the cost of garbage disposal is going to increase in the coming years, a sentiment expressed recently by one county public works official.

The situation with garbage is such in modern times that it increasingly can be viewed as a raw material with a certain amount of value. While it's unlikely the value of garbage will be such that it is regarded flat out as a commodity, it contains enough components that can be turned into commodities that it should be possible to mitigate collection and disposal costs.

The goal should, therefore, be to hold the line on garbage collection costs for the general public during this transitional period and beyond.

One way or another, everyone should be paying fairly close attention to the garbage collection situation in Harford County as it evolves, because it is one that will affect us all in many ways, not the least being the overall quality of life in our neighborhoods.

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