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Time for some reality therapy.

Lunch is not free. Neither is recycling.

The actual cost to the county to bury one ton of your garbage is more than $40, not including landfill construction costs. In the longterm -- the very long term -- removing recyclables from the landfilland marketing them for reuse will save you millions, or save your children millions.

How? By extending the useful life of our landfills in proportion to the amounts recycled.

The county's state-of-the-art landfill in Reese cost more than $300,000 an acre to develop. That figure excludes land-acquisition costs and reflects 5-year-old dollars.

Rest assured, current costs are higher.

And the less we bury, the less we will be forced to clean up. As advanced as new landfill technology may be, nobody really believes any landfill can be completely safe.

Ours has a computerized leak-detection system, a triple liner composed of layers of high-tech plastic and hard-packed impervious clay, and a leachate-collection system that purports to capture any liquids that escape.

In short, the landfill is a gigantic electronic plastic bag buried in the rolling farmlands of Carroll County.

Nobody can guarantee the thing won't leak, however, even though no safer landfill is possible with current technology.

Recyclingis an alternative to burial, although recycling is not the whole answer.

If we are to replace landfills as a means of waste management, we need to develop a massive composting program to recycle yard wastes and organic household garbage. Moreover, we will likely need cogeneration, or production of two useful forms of energy from one fuel source, to use materials that can be neither composted nor recycled but should stay out of landfills.

If we do all that, we will probably still need to do some minimal landfilling of inert materials, such as construction rubble and ash residue from cogeneration, though someof those materials are reusable in land reclamation and similar projects.

In the long term, these options are cheaper and safer than landfills. But that's in the long term.

In the short term, lunch still isn't free.

Markets for recyclables are volatile, and, like the economy, are down now. The market will certainly rebound, but now some materials cost more to sort, bale and ship than they produce in income.

Paper, for example, costs about $10 per ton to process, butsells for only about $5 per ton. In better times, though, prices of $40 to $50 per ton for clean, dry newsprint were not uncommon.

Buteven when the cost of recycling surpasses the revenue that recyclinggenerates, recycling is less expensive, and infinitely safer, than burial.

One wonders, then, about the flap resulting from the county's proposals to implement curbside recycling. The full-blown program,with pickup at your door, would cost $2 per household monthly.

Ifyou already recycle, that figure would actually save your household money and aggravation. Your monthly trip to the recycling center requires time, gas, inconvenience and storage space.

The idea of simply putting your recyclable cans, bottles and jars in a bin provided bythe county's chosen recycler, bundling your newspapers, and setting everything out at the curb once a week should sound pretty good.

Some of the contract haulers who currently pick up your garbage say they can top even that.

They say they can pick up your recyclables for free. That approach, if it works, would reduce the cost of curbside recycling to 50 cents a month per household, a bargain by any standard.

On the other hand, to the couch potatoes who are either too lazy or too ignorant to recycle now, no plan would sound good. They have already decided recycling is too much trouble anyway.

And who cares if our legacy to our kids is a landscape riddled with buried electronic plastic bags?

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