When Browning-Ferris Industries executives broke ground for a $4 million recycling center in Elkridge last week, they did so knowing their investment had already started paying off.

The center, slated tostart operating in January, is the cornerstone of BFI's leap forwardin competing for Howard County's curbside recycling business.

Workers at the facility will separate types of containers, such as glass jars, aluminum cans and plastic bottles, as well as types of paper products, such as office paper and cardboard, from the mixed containers and mixed paper.

The center will be able to handle up to 300 tons of material daily BFI hopes to collect from homes and businesses in Howard and Anne Arundel counties, and perhaps Baltimore and Prince George's counties.

The facility allowed Houston-based BFI, a$3-billion-a-year nationwide waste hauler, to win three new county recycling contracts that on Oct. 1 will expand the county's curbside program from 12,000 homes to 28,000.

That represents 40 percent of all county households. The three contracts were awarded July 3 and total $717,155.

Under two of the new contracts, BFI will pick up recyclable containers and paper from 11,300 homes on two routes coveringwestern Howard County, including part of western Ellicott City, through 1994.

Under the third contract, BFI will pick up recyclable containers and paper -- as it will in the west -- in addition to leavesand grass clippings for composting and all other trash from 4,532 homes in Columbia's Long Reach and Oakland Mills villages through 1996.

"We will save transportation costs, save manpower and, through recycling, save precious landfill space" with the Howard County facility, said Randy Brown, who coordinates the county government's recycling program.

In addition, more businesses will find it more cost-effective and convenient to recycle now that BFI will be able to collectcardboard and office paper mixed together and then sort them at the facility, said Kenneth Wishnick, divisional vice president at BFI's Atlantic Regional Office in Linthicum.

"We still have a ways to go in attracting enough recyclables to fully use the capacity of the facility," Wishnick said.

To fill that gap, Wishnick said, "We're going to be aggressively selling our recycling services to our business customers," and going after local government contracts.

Although he does not know how much material the curbside program will yield, hesaid it will be only a small percentage of the plant's capacity.

The new curbside routes are expected to yield more than 45 tons of containers per day, while paper collected will be sorted under a countycontract with Mid-Atlantic Recycling in Baltimore.

Until the new facility opens, BFI will sort its recyclables next door in 25,000 square feet of leased warehouse space.

Early next year, the county Public Works Department will accept bids for both recycling and trash pickup in Savage and North Laurel areas, whose service is to begin by next July, said Linda Fields, Howard County's recycling manager. Combining the two services will be the rule from now on, she said.

BFI's contracts for its two western county routes will expire in 1994, the same time that three other companies' trash-hauling contracts in that area will finish.

At that time, the county will seek bidders for combined trash and recycling pickup in that area.

This month, the county will advertise bids for sorting materials collected from Savage and North Laurel, with bids due Oct. 23.

Getting a separate contract for sorting recyclables, a process known as "MRFing" (for materials recovery facility) in recycling parlance, will help save the county money, Fields said.

"We're going to get a better price if weget one vendor to do all our 'MRFing' for us," Fields said.

BFI could have an edge in getting that contract because it will already beproviding the service in the county.

But other companies, such asPhoenix Recycling in Carroll County and Mid-Atlantic Recycling in Baltimore, have similarly county contracts and are well-positioned for the new one.

Phoenix's Finksburg facility sorts containers left with MORT, the county's mobile recycling center, or picked up in HowardCounty by Eastern Waste Inc., which had applied for permits for its own sorting plant next door to Elkridge in Halethorpe.

BFI's national rival, Waste Management, is planning to open a sorting plant in nearby Dorsey during 1992, said Mary Jean Walter, sales manager for the company's Baltimore Division.

She said lagging in the race did not matter in bidding for the county contracts won by BFI, however, "because at that time, everybody was equal," and did not have a facility built.

But both Eastern Waste and Waste Management did not include sorting services in their bids, and the county added nearly $30,000 to their bids for western county routes in calculating the winning bid.

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