Recycling Criminal Confesses His Sins

Well, I guess I must confess to being a recidivist of the first rank. For the second time this month, I opened some mail from my Baltimore home in the Bel Air office and discarded the envelopes in the trash can, along with a half-eaten moldy candy bar, a few well-used Kleenex tissues, a pair of glossy color advertising flyers and a dusty, long-forgotten 1988 calendar.

It wasn't the medical waste, the non-recyclable ad inserts or the contaminated garbage that caused me to cross the line between solid citizen and public nuisance. It was those verboten envelopes, addressed -- shame of shame -- to an out-of-county address!


The trash hauler found with my contraband would be fined, censured and possibly subjected to public flogging under one of the various rules promulgated by Harford County to force us to recycle and to keep "foreign" trash from entering the hallowed cavities of Scarboro landfill.

(At least I did not try to hide the envelopes in a blue recycle bag, so they might unlawfully avoid any tipping fee. If I had, I would have faced the embarrassing prospect of finding a pink "Sorry" sticker on the bag, telling me to try again to get it right, rather than exposing the hauler to the perils of official displeasure.)


OK, so maybe our office's trash hauler has prior permission to dump alien detritus in the county landfill. Still, my envelopes would be boring from within, insidiously eating up the precious space at Scarboro. Of course, since my office is located in Bel Air, maybe there's another exception: the town's 99-year dispensation against the county's new $35-a-ton tipping fee for the hauler (a controversy that is now in the lawyers' hands, which means that it will likely cost the good taxpayers more than $35 a ton simply to "legally" resolve the matter). If there's no fee for Bel Air trash at present, then perhaps the assiduous landfill checkers wouldn't bother to ferret out those pernicious out-of-county addresses among the authorized banana peels and disposable diapers.

At this time, at least, they're not dunning me to buy the proper sticker to place on the acceptable-sized bag for appropriate disposition.

Let's see, it's a 40-cent sticker for a 20-gallon trash bag, but that bag can't hold any more than 21 pounds. If it does, that will take an 80-cent stamp but only if the package weighs less than 42 pounds. Wait a minute, I forgot. That's only in Aberdeen.

Here in Bel Air, depending on who our hauler is, it could require a flat 65-cent sticker, but only if you buy a book of stickers from that particular hauler. Brother, can you spare a sticker and a kitchen scale?

Harford's five-month effort to reduce its waste flow by 20 percentthrough recycling and limiting county landfill use has certainly produced a lot of confusion and consternation. Private haulers providing public service, setting independent customer rates based on county fees: There's room for ample innovation and inequity.

Yet, for all the possible problems and complaints about the (inevitably) higher fees charged by trash haulers, Harford's system has worked remarkably well. Among the last to develop a recycling plan, to meet the state mandate of recycling 20 percent of the waste stream by 1994, Harford took its residential program countywide, in area increments, from the beginning and forced the private haulers to go along. The result is that 12 percent of Harford's 12,000 tons of residential trash each month is being recycled, most of it collected right at curbside. By next month, county businesses will be expected to do more to increase recycling, primarily of cardboard and business paper, the major castoffs of commercial enterprise.

The $35-a-ton tipping fee plus hauling charges for non-recyclable trash will force businesses to sharpen their pencils and quickly jump into the program, county recycling coordinator Robert Ernst says.

A big problem continues to be newspapers that slide out of the blue recycling bags, mixing with broken glass in the trash trucks and thus becoming un-recyclable. Tie the bags tighter, Mr. Ernst says.


The biggest complaint is the higher fees charged by haulers. Shop for a different trash hauler with better rates, he advises. Private haulers take the blue-bag recyclables to a county station Scarboro, where the material is trucked to a regional plant in Elkridge for sorting and recycling. Harford pays Browning-Ferris Industries $61 a ton to process the recyclable trash, and receives about $15 a ton for the processed material that BFI sells. About 15 percent of Harford's input is rejected, which Mr. Ernst admits is high but is improving.

The recycling market has long been problematic, which finally prompted government to mandate waste reduction. But the private Susquehannock Environmental Center in Bel Air has been doing the right thing for over 20 years, and it collects more kinds of reusable refuse than the county program, selling the waste for cash.

It's the kind of example that has helped to ease the way for Harford's blue-bagging blitzkrieg.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.