Every day at work, Lamont Harris gets a firsthand look at why Howard County's trash-disposal problems are rapidly growing bigger and more expensive.
"If you go to one home, you might have two cans. If you go to the next house, they might have six cans," says Mr. Harris, who picks up trash for Waste Management Inc., one of the county's five private trash haulers. "If you pop the top off, you might see topsoil, grass and dirt. That weighs 80 pounds!"
In officials' search for ways to alter such behavior, Howard has become the first county in the state to consider moving to a system of fees, perhaps $2 or $3 for each bag or can of trash, if approved by County Executive Charles I. Ecker and the County Council.
For Howard residents, that could boost the bill for trash removal and recycling to $200 per household by 1997, up from about $120 per household now paid by residents through their property and income taxes.
Officials say sticker fees, annual levies or more tax revenues are needed to make up for the increased cost of shipping trash out of the county, the decline in fees at the county's Alpha Ridge Landfill in Marriottsville and cost of the environmental cleanup efforts at Alpha Ridge and two closed dumps in Ellicott City and Woodbine.
The pay-as-you-throw system offers a better way to finance the county's trash pickup services while helping the environment, argues L. Scott Muller, a landfill activist from Marriottsville who serves on the county's Solid Waste Funding Assessment Board.
"It eliminates the free-rider problem, where people who are responsible with their trash are paying for the people who are irresponsible with their trash and not recycling," he says.
Another board member, Pat Dornan, who is president of the Howard County Taxpayers Association, says such fees may meet resistance from residents who don't realize that they are already footing the bill for trash removal through their taxes.
"It's buried in their bill," he says. "They haul their garbage out to the curb and forget about it."
Throughout the nation, counties are struggling to keep up with the increasing cost of trash removal, which results from environmental regulations and the loss of revenue at publicly owned landfills because of private competition.
"Howard County isn't the first and definitely won't be the last to be facing it," says Lisa A. Skumatz, a Seattle-based economist who specializes in setting up volume-based trash collection for local governments.
In Carroll County, for instance, residents of unincorporated areas pay $150 to $180 a year for private trash pickup. Members of Howard's waste-funding panel have expressed reservations about that system because of the additional truck noise and pollution when different companies serve the same street.
Howard's southern neighbors -- Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Prince George's counties -- hire contractors to remove waste but pass along costs to residents who receive the service. As of July 1, for example, Anne Arundel residents will pay an annual fee of $198 per home to cover the cost of trash collection and disposal; the fee is separate from their taxes.
Baltimore County residents get their trash picked up the same way as Howard residents, with the expense coming out of the county's general fund, which is fed by property and income taxes.
In Howard, where the county collects 6,000 tons of curbside trash each month, the economics of trash disposal are heading toward a crisis.
Landfill cleanup, the cost of hauling trash out of the county and a drop in revenue at the landfill threaten to nearly double annual trash-collection and disposal costs, to $16 million, starting in mid-1997.
Among the factors driving up the costs is a county plan to build a $3.4 million waste transfer station so that trash can be hauled out of state, probably to a regional landfill in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio or Western Maryland.
The county then would have to pay an additional $2.5 million annually to have a private contractor do the hauling, officials estimate.
The county also is expected to pay $2.9 million in interest each year on the $32 million environmental cleanup project at the Alpha Ridge, New Cut Road and Carr's Mill landfills.
Those financial problems are compounded by the decline in commercial customers dumping their trash at Alpha Ridge caused by competition from newer, more modern private landfills, most of them out of state. That trend is expected to cut the county's "tip fees" revenue from $4.1 million in the 1995 fiscal year, which ends this month, to $1.5 million next year and $330,000 the year after that.
Expanding the landfill under the current financing scheme doesn't make sense, says Mr. Muller of the county's finance panel. Expanding the landfill by enough to last five years would cost $10 million and would take 20 years to pay off, he estimates.
That means the county will have to look for a way to cut back on the nonrecyclable trash residents produce; a pay-as-you-throw system is one way to do that.
Under one version of that system, residents would get one free can or bag picked up each week. Other trash would have to be placed in a bag with a sticker or emblem printed on it. Residents would buy the stickers or bags from the county and could pay as much as $2 or $3 for each.
Although Howard would be the first county in the state to adopt such a system, Aberdeen in Harford County has been doing it since 1993.
Tip fees charged
Aberdeen was faced with increased trash-disposal costs when Harford County began charging tip fees at its incinerator and landfill several years ago. The city responded with a fee system, says James A. Litke, the city's recycling coordinator.
The program met with some opposition when it was proposed. When the city polled residents, however, 70 percent of those who responded said they favored the pay-as-you-throw program over a flat rate added to city water bills.
Aberdeen residents must now affix stickers to their trash bags or cans to prove that they have paid for disposal in the county landfill or incinerator. A 40-cent sticker pays for a standard 20-gallon can or 13-gallon bag, and an 80-cent sticker pays for a 32-gallon can or 30-gallon bag.
Since the fee system began about two years ago, recycling in Aberdeen has soared. The city's 3,600 households have gone from producing an average of 38 tons of recyclables a month to about 75 tons a month, Mr. Litke said.
If Howard County adopts a bag or sticker system, it is likely to cost much more than Aberdeen's because it might pay for more than disposal. It also could pay for collection and perhaps the debt service on the landfill cleanup program.
County Executive Ecker has given the waste funding board until Sept. 1 to recommend a financing plan for the county's trash-disposal problems.
Some residents aren't convinced there is a need for such changes -- certainly not if they will cost more.
'Big Brother' intrusion
"In this case, Howard County is controlling behavior, and I would like to get government out of my life. It's another intrusion of Big Brother," says Mary Edith Flynn, 62, who has lived in Ellicott City for 17 years. "It has not been conclusively proven that there is a financial need or an environmental need, and I am concerned that the current proposals . . . are part of a current trend toward environmental extremism."
Stephen Tan, 16, a Wilde Lake High School student and avid recycler, says he supports a by-the-bag fee -- to a degree.
"It'll encourage people to recycle more, but it's going to cause problems," he says. Such a system would be difficult to administer, he says, and might stir resentment in people who feel they are recycling as much as they can.
From trash collector's point of view, the county needs to make residents more aware that their trash comes with a price tag.
"When I put trash out at home, I think about what I'm putting out," says Mr. Harris, the trash collector. "Maybe if these residents got to ride on the back of this truck, they'd think about what they put out."