The idea that county residents might be made to pay a per-bag fee to have their trash removed came under vigorous scrutiny last night at a public meeting on the county's solid-waste problems.
"Don't our taxes already pay for this service?" asked Karen Deloache of Columbia's Owen Brown Village. "Why don't we leave it the way it is now?"
"You drive home the idea that this is your part of the waste stream," responded Miriam Mahowald, chairwoman of the county Solid Waste Advisory Committee.
Dennis Schrader, another member of the advisory committee, said the concept of the per-bag fee could be illustrated by a consumer's choice of a large or small plastic container at a supermarket salad bar.
"I would think people would think twice about using that big container if they had to pay for [disposing of] it," he said.
In addition to reducing the amount of waste people bring into their homes, such a fee could also encourage residents to separate more recyclables, which would be collected at no additional charge.
If county officials do decide to institute such a fee, taxes would likely be lowered to make up for the additional cost of the service, said Miriam Mahowald, who chairs the committee.
"What people are paying now is virtually nothing," said Don Gill, a Marriottsville resident. "They have to understand that we are at a crisis point here," and the days of cheap disposal are over.
About 30 people attended the meeting at Hammond High School, the first of three to gauge public opinion on how the county should deal with its trash.
Nearly half of those present were committee members, who are charged with formulating a long-term solid waste plan for the county by December.
Two more public forums have been scheduled by the committee -- 7:30 p.m. Nov. 4 at the Board of Education Building at Cedar Lane and Route 108, and 10 a.m. Nov. 14 in the Banneker Room of the George Howard Building on Court House Drive in Ellicott City.
The committee must recommend whether the county should dispose of its trash with an incinerator, composting operation or a new or expanded landfill, or some combination of those choices.
The county might also join with other counties in a regional effort, or pay a private hauler to deal with the problem entirely or in part.
The county now disposes of most of its waste in the Alpha Ridge Landfill in Marriottsville, but that facility is expected to filled by 2008.
This year's solid-waste budget is $6.5 million, and it is expected to be 2 1/2 times that by 2000.
In May, the County Council approved a $280,000 study to evaluate expansion of the landfill.
Jim Murray of Kings Contrivance Village said he liked the idea of per-bag trash collection to make residents more waste-conscious.
Mr. Murray worried, however, that it would be a regressive tax, and would create an undue burden on poorer residents.
"There has to be a way to make it so it isn't regressive, so people won't just dump their trash along the side of the road," Mr. Murray said.
Others at the meeting addressed the main issue facing the committee: what to do with the waste once it is collected.
Mark Condon of Owen Brown said there is a way to get around the economics of recycling plastics.
"If we can't develop markets for it, then let's outlaw it so we won't be bringing it into the county in the first place," Mr. Condon said.
But Ms. Mahowald said plastics were not that severe a problem compared with paper, which makes up about 40 percent of the county's waste stream.
Since the committee was formed by County Executive Charles I. Ecker last November, members have visited more than a dozen solid waste facilities, including composting operations, trash-burning power plants and landfills in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Minnesota.