The county has less than two years in which to have a waste recycling plan in effect under a state mandate, and it's high time someone ina position to make the call gets a program rolling.

The clearest example of the county's need to make headway on reducing its waste stream, and fast, came this week: The Resource Recovery Plant, where waste is incinerated and the heat used to create steam for Aberdeen Proving Ground, can't handle the level of garbage being generated, notedCounty Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann in her State of the County address last week.

"An additional burner is needed now; waste is being diverted to the landfill," she said.

If Harford had an aggressive recycling policy in place that required -- yes, required -- not only residents butalso businesses to sort out recyclables, perhaps the county wouldn'tbe faced with seeing waste intended for incineration piled instead into its central landfill.

Required recycling would be a bold move.

Sure, people would grouse about it; it's tough dragging people into a changing world. But when it comes to the protection of our environment and the management of the resources it gives us, it's time to be bold.

Former Executive Habern W. Freeman could have been more aggressive addressing the issue during his tenure and getting a policyin place.

The Department of Public Works presented Freeman with ahome recycling plan and curbside pick-up plan, but Freeman bagged the proposal and just before leaving office in December said he favoreda recycling plan that would not require county residents and businesses to sort recyclables from trash. A $5 million machine would do it.

On first look, the machine sorter sounds great. Everyone can go on with their old habits of tossing everything into one bag.

But the price tag is equal to the cost of a small elementary school,and waste experts say some materials that roll through the sorters are too soiled to be marketable.

There's the metaphysical question, too.

Are we to leave everything up to government? Are we too lazy to bitethe bullet and chip in to help save our environment from the abuse we've heaped on it for years?

Freeman said one reason he decided the machine sorter was the answer was because of his own experience athome. He said he found sorting his own family's trash too tough.

Well, it's not that tough. It's an adjustment. It requires changing ahabit for a new one. That is all. Everyone can do it, except for those who are L-A-Z-Y.

Instead of being a leader in the field of waste recycling, Harford has the distinction of being the only Baltimore-area county that offers no curbside recycling.

The programs in other counties aren't exactly stellar, but they, at least, have something started. Consider: In Anne Arundel County, about 19,000 households in about five communities are offered curbside pick-up of recyclables, such as glass and aluminum. The service has been offered since November 1988. Atlast check there was a 75 percent participation rate.

In Baltimore County, a curbside pick-up program offered to 8,000 households was just started in July in about seven communities. Participation hasn't been exemplary -- about 40 percent. But it's a start.

The only recycling going on right now in Harford can be found among those businesses, such as some McDonald's restaurants, that are sorting some recyclables, and those county residents who have enough social and environmental awareness to sort their trash at home and then take recyclables to one of the county's few drop-off centers.

It's true, as Jim Handshoe, the seasoned manager of the county's Solid Waste Management Department, says, that before you start a recycling program, you need to have buyers for the materials targeted. Also, he notes, you must designate a place where the recyclables can be dropped off by the county's private,competitive trash haulers.

The county government, then, should contact buyers of recyclables from the Susquehannock Environmental Center near Bel Air and other county recycling centers to see what materials they would buy at what prices and get their ideas for putting in place a collection system.

Next, the county should have county planners, in conjunction with the Department of Public Works, target a central site, or perhaps a number of regional ones, for the haulers to drop off recyclables.

Meanwhile, county lawmakers should fashion legislation that would phase in mandatory sortingof trash by businesses and the 65,000 households, starting with voluntary compliance.

Last week, County Council President Jeffrey Wilsonsaid in his State of the County address: "Environmental protection has become the first duty at every level of government."

He was half right. It should also be the first duty of every citizen. As Americans, we spend a lot of time talking about our rights. But we have obligations, too.

One of them is to break our pattern of tossing every used bottle and can into the proverbial gutter.

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