Wednesday is recycling day in Mount Airy. I take my morning walks and admire the many creative ways folks have folded, tied and amassed used cardboard boxes — God bless Amazon in our time of crisis; there should be a cardboard carton art demonstration like the Peeps — and by mid-afternoon, like magic, it all disappears.
I served on the Carroll County Environmental Advisory Council for about a dozen years. We reviewed the recycling program, land disposal options, waste-to-energy, and enhanced recycling (the so-called Zero Waste Option as mentioned in Bruce Holstein’s recent guest column). We interviewed a lot of very smart and successful people, and looked at depth into the county’s decision to participate in a bi-county (with Frederick County) plans to build a Waste to Energy facility, sited in Frederick County near the Potomac River, as mentioned in Dean Minnich’s March 4 column.
I quickly learned it’s not only what you do correctly that matters, but what you don’t do counts more. The trash haulers in Carroll County are politically active, donate to political campaigns, and react fiercely if you try to phase them out.
Lesson number two is that the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) places (justifiably in my opinion) restrictive environmental requirements on landfills in county/state locations, but the cost to develop new landfills is prohibitive as a result.
As luck would have it, our neighbor state just north of us is willing to accept trash, and the bulk of our trash was hauled there and stored in large landfills. However, that option may be closing down.
Recycling is somewhat of a shell game since there are state mandates, but much of the waste goes eventually to a landfill somewhere. The state encourages local governments to go along with this plan — kind of a wink/wink relationship. Primarily, this is because the economic benefit of recycling, which looked attractive about a decade ago, isn’t there for most recycled materials, but nobody wants to own up to this situation.
I think the county waste and recycling staff is quite competent, and I’ve worked with many of them. They are really trying, and if I were in their shoes, I would likely have done something comparable.
It is unfortunate that the economic bottom for recycling material continues to drop, forcing much of it to be eventually disposed with regular trash. It is unfortunate a landfill costs so much to develop and operate. It is unfortunate that neighboring states have finally run out of space and/or the will to accept out-of-state trash. It is unfortunate that waste-to-energy facilities are so costly to build and operate and have widespread political opposition.
And, as I indicated in my lead-in sentence, it’s unfortunate that we have relied so heavily on mail-in home delivery. Even smallish packages generate disproportionally large amounts of cardboard, and it adds up quickly. I’ve become reasonably good at the “brute force” method for smaller boxes, and a more systematic de-layering and unfolding of larger ones. Perhaps we could send the boxes back to Amazon and other provider of goods and re-use them.
Yet we have this Rube Goldberg system that operates very inefficiently and soon perhaps may not work at all. The primary way the waste system worked in Carroll County for the past decade — until just recently — was that several large trucks of trash every day is hauled from Westminster to a Pennsylvania landfill. But there are a lot of other moving parts, and it has the appearance of working quite effectively.
It is a national/worldwide problem. A 2012 article in The Atlantic quoted that we (the world) annually threw out 2,6 trillion pounds of garbage. Most went into landfills, and a relatively small percentage is recycled. Maryland’s recycling goal is 40%, but it’s hard to get a true picture of how much is actually not put into the ground. Obtaining that figure would take a lot of detective work.
As part of their plans to address the trash problem, I hope the commissioners and staff chew on this and try to address it systematically. It’s both a very real problem requiring top engineering, political and strategic thinking as well as being a house of cards at the same time.
Dave Pyatt writes from Mount Airy. Reach him at DPyatt2@verizon.net.
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