Sixteen years ago Baltimore County officials thought their new recycling plant off York Road in Cockeysville was going to solve the county's trash problem.
Metal and glass would be recovered by the massive, $16.5 million plant. Paper and plastic would produce pellets that could be sold as fuel. And use of the county's overburdened landfills would be prolonged.
Though the plant near the old Texas landfill has had some success, it also has had much failure.
The main reason is that no one wants to buy the pellets, and markets for the other materials also are hard to find.
"We've been in this for 16 years," said Fred Homan, the county budget director. "And we've been chasing markets for 16 years. We've gotten close to a long term deal maybe six times. It gets real frustrating."
Over the years the plant, known as Baltimore County's Resource Recovery Facility, has brought in roughly $15 million in revenue, while the county has spent $65 million in operating costs. The County Council has even discussed shutting it down. But hope remains that a market for the fuel pellets can be found.
"We're still looking," Mr. Homan said. "We're negotiating with three companies right now."
Despite its problems, the Texas plant remains a partial success.
Trucks rumble up to the scale for weighing, flies buzzing behind as the vehicles slowly back up to disgorge their odorous cargo into huge metal pits.
In a moment, steel blades shred the trash of thousands of county residents into a messy pulp.
Conveyor belts carry the mulch under another conveyor studded with magnets that pull tuna cans, bottle caps and other ferrous metal out for shipment to Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point furnaces. There the scrap is turned into steel.
The county spends about $2 million a year to operate the Texas plant, shredding the trash and collecting and selling about 7,000 tons of ferrous metals a year.
Early on, the county planned to use the glass fragments to make cinder blocks and other building materials.
That idea collapsed when it was discovered that cinder blocks could be made cheaper with virgin materials.
Similar efforts to make press-board out of the shredded paper and plastic also failed, Mr. Homan said.
Then, in the early 1980s, came some success.
Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. started buying the pellets -- at about $17 a ton -- and burning them in its C. P. Crane Power Station in Bowleys Quarters. BG&E;'s deal with the county lasted six years.
At the height of its success, in fiscal 1987, the Texas site produced 52,000 tons of the pellets, extracted 6,700 tons of ferrous metals and generated $1.2 million in revenue. On some days, 1,000 tons of garbage went into the plant and as little as 150 tons went to the landfills.
But BG&E; stopped accepting the pellets in 1989, saying that the material caused too many mechanical problems with its boiler equipment. Another problem with burning the fuel pellets at the Crane power plant was that the stuff produced a thick, sticky ash that clogged the boiler, said Wayne D. Seifert, Crane's plant manager.
"We would have to shut down and spend days in there scraping it off," he said.
Since then, the county has only shredded the trash and continued to extract ferrous metals.
While some might consider the plant a white elephant, Mr. Homan and other county officials note that it has kept roughly 400,000 tons of garbage out of county landfills, thus prolonging the life of those vital resources.
Building new landfills, which today must be lined with plastic and have complicated leachate collection systems, averages about $500,000 per acre, Mr. Homan said.
Also, the refuse shredded at the Texas facility takes up less space than raw garbage, noted John D. Markley, a county budget analyst.
Still, the county is left with the problem of what to do with the pellets.
One solution is for the county to build its own incinerator, according to Mr. Homan.
Such a plant, designed specifically to burn the pellets, could produce electricity that might be sold to BG&E.; But that's an unlikely scenario. Building electricity-producing incinerators is extremely expensive, costing between $30 million and $40 million, and public outcry would likely erupt, Mr. Homan said.
Meanwhile, the side of the Texas plant that produces the pellets sits quiet and unused, but ready if the county finds someone who wants the material.
"Until we've convinced ourselves that we've looked at every opportunity and knocked on every door, it doesn't make sense to give up on it," Mr. Homan said.