Although progress is gradual, recycling expands in Maryland


Thousands of loyal volunteers have spent Saturdays elbow-deep in trash. Local governments have promised to haul recyclables from curb to market. And whole new businesses have arisen to shred plastic bottles and ship paper overseas.

The result?

So far, less than 5 percent of the Baltimore area's residential trash is being recycled.

But faithful recyclers who haul their paper, plastic, aluminum and glass to the curb or the recycling center shouldn't despair, according to local officials, who believe that the percentage could go up significantly in the next few years.

Recycling helps reduce pollution from incinerators and landfills and save energy, they said.

But the statistics show how difficult it is to make recycling work.

In Baltimore, which has just announced a major drive to collect recyclables from every household in the city, only 2 percent of residential trash is being recycled, according to Alphonso Riddick, the city's recycling manager.

In Baltimore County, 4 percent is.

(The difference between the two jurisdictions may be in part how they count their trash: The county includes anything that is given to Goodwill Industries or collected by a grocery store chain. The city doesn't.)

Recycling rates vary widely around the state. Howard County estimates that 20 percent of its residential waste will be recycled by October, while Frederick County is just beginning curbside collection.

Charles Reighart, Baltimore County's recycling coordinator, believes that the county has made great progress in the past year. About 2,500 volunteers staff the 11 drop-off centers that open three hours every Saturday in the county, he said. "It shows a lot about the commitment by people of this county to do something about the environment," he said.

But despite the spread of the environmental ethic, only a small percentage of the public -- about 10 percent of households in the county -- is actually recycling, Mr. Reighart said.

The percentage of all trash, commercial and residential, that no longer is burned or buried is actually much larger. About 11 percent or 12 percent in the city and 14 percent in the county is recycled, drawing both jurisdictions close to the state goal for them of 15 percent by 1994.

But both the city and the county count in that percentage the waste from businesses that has been recycled for years, such as scrap metal. "It wasn't called recycling. It was called junk dealing," Mr. Riddick said.

So looking at the percentage of residential waste is a truer picture of the progress that has been made in the past two years to collect the average citizen's recyclable trash.

But, Mr. Reighart concedes, it's "a lot harder than most people think" to improve that picture.

"A lot of material is not recyclable," he said. "It is extremely expensive."

Fluctuations in the markets for recyclables sometimes make it more expensive for local governments to get rid of the recyclables they collect.

"In general, all the markets for municipal programs are depressed and are a little bit flooded because there is so much recycling," said Jackson S. Haden Jr., president of the Phoenix Recycling Co.

Recyclables aren't being dumped into landfills or bulldozed into huge piles as they are in some places in the country, but the prices local governments in Maryland get for the products are low, and the companies that take the waste are demanding that it not be contaminated.

Mr. Haden, who acts as a middleman between municipal governments and the markets, said he is just hoping to break even these days. Because his main business is trash hauling, he said, he considers recycling a service he provides because his customers want it. "You just got to ride out the bad times."

Baltimore is lucky to have local businesses, some of them created in the past two years, that will buy recyclables, he said.

Plastic bottles go to a plant on Golden Ring Road. Aluminum companies take aluminum, and paper goes to two recycling companies, one that makes the paper into cereal boxes and another that mostly ships it overseas.

The biggest marketing problem for local governments, Mr. Haden said, is getting rid of glass. Because there is no local glass company, it must be trucked out of state.

The city's recycling record is "a combination of fantastic and awful," said Margie Roswell, an officer in the Baltimore Recycling Coalition, an organization made up of neighborhood associations and businesses involved in recycling.

By the fall, Baltimore will have one of the largest collection programs in the country for paper, including magazines, junk mail, newspapers and cardboard. "The terrible part is that nobody knows about it," she said.

The city has failed to get the word out to its residents that curbside programs exist, she said. In some areas where curbside recycling has been offered for months, residents still believe they must separate plastics from the glass. In other areas where paper pickups have just begun, some residents have no idea when to put out the paper, she said. "There is a serious gap in communication with the public."

Most members of the coalition believe that even the statewide goal of 20 percent by the year 1994 is far too low and will fail to make recycling a true way to deal with trash, according to Ms. Roswell.

The city and county have already been given a 5 percent credit toward the goal for what they say is recycled from trash taken to the area's incinerators.

"If we set our goals low enough, we can continue to feel as though we are doing something while burning 4 million pounds a day," she said.

In Seattle and New Jersey, governments have just set a goal of 60 percent recycling.

And environmental groups argue that up to 80 percent of the contents of the average person's trash bin could be recycled.

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