Like a traffic cop at rush hour, Chris Johnson guides his High PointElementary classmates through the rote of lunch-time recycling.

As the other second-graders carry their trays to the trash bin, Chris,a tow-headed 7-year-old, issues orders. Drop the plastic utensils here, drain the milk cartons there and stack the polystyrene plates.

"It's fun," Chris says, adding that it's a very important job.

But ask him why it's important to recycle or about the need to conserve natural resources and space in the county landfill, and Chris quickly says he doesn't know. Instead, he goes back to his initial proposition: It's fun to play with garbage.

It's students like Chris and his classmates that drive the county's pioneering recycling program, said Walter F. George III, assistant supervisor of operations for the Anne Arundel County Schools.

In the program's third year, the county's 125 public schools are recycling 40 percent of their trash. George estimates that they divert more than 403 tons of white paper, aluminum cans, cardboard and polystyrene -- used in Styrofoam and other plastics -- from the county landfill.

And George, who hopes to recycle 75 percent of the school system's trash, says he receives inquiries from around the world, from other school systems and governments seeking to duplicate the success. The program was even nominated for a Presidential Environmental Award last year.

"Polystyrene -- that's the biggie," George said about the petroleum-based plastic utensils and plates. "Nobody wants that stuff. In fact, you're fortunate if you can get anyone to take it all."

Collecting and shipping the light but bulky polystyrene often costs more than most recycling companies are willing to pay for it, George said. But the schools' trash hauler, Eastern Waste Industries Inc., agreed to pick up the polystyrene if it could have the schools' cardboard as well, he said.

The plastic plates and utensils are sent to Bridgeport, N.J., where they are washed, shredded, reformed into small pellets and resold. Eventually, the pellets will be converted into park benches, lawn furniture,carpet, plastic cassettes and compact discs.

The county schools' recycling program began at Old Mill High and Middle schools two yearsago and then expanded countywide. The last of the county's 125 schools began recycling Jan. 1.

George said the schools' program has developed independently of the county's curbside recycling effort, run by the county Department of Public Works. But the schools' efforts count toward the county's recycling goals.

The Maryland General Assembly has ordered the counties and Baltimore to recycle at least 15 percent of their waste by 1994.

Robert Reichard, recycling manager for Eastern Waste Industries, said Anne Arundel County pioneered comprehensive recycling in schools. At least five other school systems have since followed suit, he said.

Why is the program so successful?

Because, George says, "it's a matter of saving tax money. The other obvious part of it is it's teaching the children to recycle."

Recycling companies do pay for some commodities, like cardboard and aluminum, but recycling really pays off at the landfill. By recycling, the school system avoids the $50 per ton fee the county charges to dump there, George says.

Last year, with only three-quarters of the county's schools participating, the Board of Education saved $42,000 that it would have spent dumping trash at the landfill, George said.

The program would not have been nearly as successful if the schoolshad not been able to involve the students, said John Goheen, a spokesman with the state Department of the Environment.

"When you get the kids involved, they quickly become believers in recycling, and it becomes a legacy," Goheen said. "When the kids leave school, they take recycling home with them."

For students like Chris at High PointElementary, recycling has become second nature, said Principal Robert Kanach. They all may not be able to articulate why they do it, but they do do it, he said.

"The hardest part is getting the kids to save their 'sporks,' " he said, referring to the combination fork-spoon utensil. "They always want to throw those away for some reason."

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