Successfully dealing with waste has been a hallmark of successful governments since human settlements evolved into cities.
Rome may be remembered for its debauched emperors, but it's also remembered for its aqueducts and related sewage and garbage disposal public works structure.
It's a defining characteristic of humanity that we have special places where we dispose of waste. Archaeologists call the ancient waste disposal mound sites middens, and they're regarded as valuable sources of information about how ancient people lived. Up until about a half century ago, they were referred to as dumps, or the more highfalutin name municipal dumps.
When it became clear that modern garbage was sweating modern poisons into the soil and polluting water supplies, dumps were equipped with liners made of clay and plastic, and the drippings are collected and treated. These aren't dumps. They're sanitary landfills, a name that sounds like a fancy euphemism for dump, but actually is fairly fitting considering the level of technology involved.
It's likely the archaeologists of the future will have plenty to say about the level of technology that has gone into our waste middens, not to mention the quality of the things we throw out.
So ingrained in the human experience is the principle of keeping garbage away from civilized places that discussions of where to dispose of garbage, or where to store it on its way to disposal, are flash points of public policy discussions. So it is with the case of Harford County's proposed trash transfer operation for a property on Route 7 in Joppa.
Lately, the county councilman who represents the area, Dion Guthrie, has been advocating an arrangement that would wholly divorce trash removal responsibility from the county government.
Guthrie's plan involves making an arrangement wherein a private waste disposal operation in White Marsh takes responsibility for disposing of the county's garbage. From a historical perspective that recognizes the long association of effective local governments with effective waste disposal, the idea may seem far-fetched, but from a certain modern perspective, it isn't.
Most residential garbage in Harford County is collected as a result of contracts between private trash collection companies and the homeowners and apartment complex owners who are their customers. The haulers dispose of garbage at county-owned facilities and pay tipping fees for the privilege of doing so. The county's waste disposal operation includes a quasi-public trash incinerator that generates steam energy that is sold to Aberdeen Proving Ground, off-setting to some degree the cost of waste disposal. Ash from the incinerator ends up at the Scarboro Sanitary Landfill.
Unfortunately, this arrangement is coming to an end as the incinerator is being phased out by the Army and the Scarboro landfill is filling up quickly.
Garbage, however, is big business. It even has its own trade publications with names like American Waste Digest and The Hauler.
Private companies have established massive sanitary landfills and are willing to take in garbage and other waste from far afield. A few remote communities are eager to have the facilities nearby because of the jobs they provide and the relatively clean processes employed in modern waste disposal operations.
Furthermore, while Harford County's pioneering trash incinerator may soon be nothing more than a memory, plenty of private firms have recognized the profit potential of a business model where people pay to get rid of fuel (garbage) for an electric generating plant, and the electric company pays for the resulting electricity.
Given the trash can to landfill services offered these days by waste hauling and disposal businesses, Guthrie's proposal to get Harford County out of the garbage disposal business altogether doesn't seem so outrageous as it might have a generation ago.
That doesn't, however, make it an ideal solution. There's a fair amount of liability associated with the waste disposal business, and it is a business model that is still finding its way, at least on the mega-scale that has evolved in recent years. There is no guarantee that the conditions that make garbage profitable today will remain 10 or 20 or 50 years from now. It is all but guaranteed, though, that there will still be garbage, and in a situation where garbage disposal isn't profitable, it will revert to being a local government responsibility. So long as this is the case, county government will need to have an active role in devising garbage disposal policy.
None of this means private hauling operations and disposal facilities won't be a part of the solution to Harford County's looming garbage disposal problem; indeed Guthrie's proposal is one that might end up being part of the solution. It also doesn't mean opening a county-owned trash transfer station in Joppa is the only sound public policy option available to the county government – though this is a notion that seems to be ingrained in some county officials.
Among the problems to date with the Joppa waste station proposal are that it remains unclear where trash will be going once it gets to Joppa in a post Scarboro county, the selection of the Joppa site appears to have been made in an isolation chamber beyond the curious eyes of the public and the involvement of state and federal agencies and quasi-governmental agencies appears to be clandestinely dictating local policy.
Neither the construction of a trash transfer station as a piecemeal solution to a large and complex problem, nor the abdication of county government responsibility for garbage disposal should be considered an acceptable solution in the short term, or the long term.