After two years, Baltimore County's single-stream recycling program collecting momentum

Paper in one bin, bottles in another. Remember those old days of recycling?

Many residents do, and with no regrets for their being relegated to the past with the introduction of single-stream recycling in Baltimore County two years ago, on Feb. 1, 2010.

"Nobody wants to sort," said Allison White, a Catonsville resident and environmental science teacher at Mount St. Joseph High School, in Baltimore, who created the Facebook group, "No More Sorting! Support Single Stream Recycling in Baltimore County" shortly before the county's switch.

Alane Kimes, of Perry Hall, who has long volunteered for county recycling initiatives and has been trained by the county to talk to the community about recycling, agreed.

"It's like no hassle at all to do it," Kimes said of single-stream recycling. "I really have a hard time understanding why anyone wouldn't want to do it."

Two years into the program, county officials said they are hearing similar thoughts from residents all across the county.

The county may have gotten a later start on single-stream recycling than surrounding counties – Howard County began in 2006 and Carroll County began in 2007 – but it's certainly catching up now, officials said.

"It's just gotten better and better," said Charles Reighart, the county's recycling coordinator.

The single-stream program has brought new recyclers into the fold, inspired part-time recyclers to participate more consistently, and given ardent recyclers the option to recycle more materials, from aluminum foil to rigid plastics such as drinking cups and flower pots, Reighart said.

The program also is saving landfill space, cutting down on disposal costs and dramatically increasing the amount of recyclable materials the county is collecting, Reighart said.

The numbers are impressive.

In 2009, the last year before the county introduced single-stream recycling, the county collected 36,167 tons of recycling. In 2010, which allowed for single-stream recycling for 11 months of the year, the county collected 47,182 tons of recycling, a 30.5 percent increase over 2009. In 2011, the county collected 51,345 tons of recycling, another 8.8 percent increase over 2010 and a 42 percent increase over 2009.

Considering the county paysWaste Management Inc.$56.41 a ton for trash disposal, the 15,178 additional tons recycled in 2011 compared with 2009 saved the county more than $856,000 in disposal costs, Reighart said.

"Most people already accept and understand that recycling is good for the environment standpoint, and that's well and good, but a lot of people don't understand that recycling is good from a fiscal standpoint as well," Reighart said.

Because of the substantial costs of collecting and disposing of trash and recycling, recycling doesn't amount to a net gain for the county, but it "does help to offset the overall cost of a waste management program," Reighart said.

And the fiscal reality behind recycling is continuing to improve, he said.

Until this year, the county was simply handing over its recyclables to Waste Management, which sorts recyclables from various local jurisdictions at a facility in Elkridge, bundles them and ships them off to foreign ports as a commodity.

"We still got the avoided disposal cost, but we weren't getting revenue," Reighart said.

But as of the first of the year, Baltimore County has a revenue sharing agreement with Waste Management, Reighart said, and will be bringing in money from the materials county residents recycle.

What's more, the County Council authorized $13 million in financing in November to upgrade the county's existing recycling facility in Cockeysville to be able to handle single-stream recycling, with some estimates showing the county could make $200,000 per month by handling the process itself.

Moving forward, the county will continue looking to improve how it recycles, Reighart said, and has been looking at the possibility of recycling food scraps into compost, a process that Howard County has begun in pilot form.

According to Howard officials, participating households in that program have decreased their household waste by about 25 percent.

Residents said they'd be happy for more progress. They look back at where the county has come from, they said, and marvel at the changes.

A look back

In her environmental science classes at Mount St. Joseph, White said she often asks her students about their families' recycling habits, and what their thoughts on it are.

Of her 80 junior and senior students, only about five said they don't recycle, she said.

"It's so much a part of their lives, but it was very new when I was young and in high school," White said of her days growing up in Catonsville.

White remembers having to drive her family's recycling to the park-and-ride on South Rolling Road for collection there.

To her students, "that's just a crazy idea," she said.

It wasn't until the early 1990s that Baltimore County first transitioned from twice-a-week trash collections to once-a-week trash collection and once-a-week recycling collection.

While some counties in the area simply added a recycling collection to their existing trash schedule, Reighart said Baltimore County avoided additional costs by replacing one of the trash collections, and the strategy worked. Collection costs have remained stable ever since.

"It was a positive thing from a fiscal perspective," Reighart said.

Owings Mills resident Rick Peters, a music teacher at Mount St. Joseph for the last 20 years, said he remembers the days when paper was collected one week, bottles and plastics the next.

"So if you forgot to put it out one week, that meant you'd have an extra week of bottles sitting around your house," he said. "I didn't have a separate container outside, (so) you'd put it in plastic bags and that kind of piled up."

Now, his one large container for all recyclables can usually fit two weeks worth of recycling, he said.

"So if we do forget, it just stays outside and it doesn't get in the way," he said.

Peters said he hadn't thought much about single-stream recycling until talking about it with White and Vince Gardina, a former Mount St. Joseph teacher. A former county councilman, Gardina currently serves as the county's director of environmental protection and sustainability.

Now, Peters said, he's a big supporter of the simplified process.

"You don't have to separate, you can just put the plastic and the glass and the paper in one container and … be done with it," he said. "It seems so much simpler."

Kimes, who began volunteering with the county when it first started offering drop-off locations for recycling, has more recently been trained as a "master composter" and talks with residents about composting food scraps.

She has been "very pleased" with her interactions with county recycling officials over the years, she said, and hopes their dedication to improving the county's environmental footprint continues.

"I applaud their efforts, and I hope other people will join me in pushing them toward even higher goals," she said.

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