What a difference a year makes in the recycling business. It's confirmation that the market economy drives the system. And it's confirmation that government policy keeps the program going in hard times.
Recycling is cyclical. A combination of approaches is needed to carry the system through feast and famine, defying the naysayers who hold fast to polarized views of free market versus government mandate.
The scrap paper market was dead a year ago. Recyclers couldn't give the stuff away. They had to pay to get someone to take the unwanted newspapers and waste paper. Junk mail was truly junk and even plain white office paper was an unwelcome commodity.
Recycling collection centers were suffering, closing some operations, refusing to take materials they formerly accepted. Volunteer morale was flagging. Companies that had launched comprehensive recycling programs had second thoughts; employees lost interest in the effort, which no longer had management support.
Some faulted government-required recycling, such as Maryland's 1988 law imposing goals for all counties, for glutting the market. Environmentalists with good intentions but no confirmed end-users also took the rap. Producers of consumer goods drew heat for preferring non-recycled packaging and virgin materials, because of the higher cost of recycled stuff.
Now the markets have turned, and the demand for paper is surging. Waste paper rates are rising monthly, as are prices for the recycled paper products.
Metals and glass are also finding welcome buyers. Susquehannock Environmental Center, outside Bel Air, is actually advertising its rates for aluminum and glass bottles. The center remains a proud landmark in the recycling world, started by high school students in 1972 and said to be the oldest volunteer recycling operation in continuous existence.
Harford County is preparing to add "mixed paper" to its curbside recycling pickup next month. That will make junk mail, wrapping paper and cereal boxes, among other paper products, acceptable for recycling, along with the newspapers and magazines that are already collected in recycling "blue bags."
The expanded pickup is expected to add about 3,600 tons a year to the 50,000 tons of waste that Harford already recycles. It could add even more to the total, as recalcitrant householders who refused to sort their paper trash for recycling will find it easier come April to throw it all into one blue bag.
One potential start-up problem for householders: The pickup schedule will alternate, with metal, glass and plastic containers one week, paper products the next, instead of picking up both types each week. But that should reduce the amount of "contaminated" material that is rejected by the sorting facilities, for which Harford pays a penalty.
Paper recycling should also be more efficient because Harford will ship waste paper directly to a processor in eastern Baltimore County, instead of to the all-purpose sorting center in Elkridge, Howard County.
The reason that Harford can confidently expand its collection to include mixed paper is that prices for the orphan product have risen significantly.
Prices for other recycled papers have also gone up, in response to the sharp rise in virgin fiber paper prices. Technology changes have increased de-inking and recycling profitability. Recycling mills are paying about $100 a ton for old newspapers, more for white office paper.
Demand for recycled paper as a socially desirable product is on the upswing. More private companies are taking that step. A big boost came from the federal government's decision last year to demand the use of more recycled paper.
Harford County government has sought out recycled paper products for several years. It expects to pay a higher price, and a frequently adjusted price, for its next contract with paper suppliers.
These are the kinds of government actions that will bolster the recycling movement. It's not a false economy, either, when an ongoing demand can be met by a more environment friendly product.
Recycling is also intended to conserve valuable landfill space. Getting approval to open a new landfill is extremely difficult these days. So the extra cost of recycling waste is partly a tax paid to help stretch the life span of existing dumps. (This should not lead to excessive subsidies for uneconomical recycling when secure landfill space is available at reasonable cost, even if it is located across county or state boundaries.)
Harford County residents have responded admirably to the recycling challenge. Since the countywide program was introduced less than three years ago, the amount of recycled solid waste has climbed from 15 percent to more than 25 percent.
That achievement far exceeds the state-set goal of 20 percent recycling for counties Harford's size. And it was accomplished without the 5 percent bonus credit given by the state for Harford's waste-to-energy incinerator at Magnolia.
Harford's recycling program has continued to expand in other ways, too. The county takes latex paint, rubber tires, phone books, mattresses and even Christmas trees for recycling. Yard wastes are turned into garden material at the composting
Thanks to a lot of people, including the private trash haulers who pick up our reusables, recycling works in Harford.
Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.