The Cost of Garbage


Is Howard County on its way to a "pay-as-you-throw" fee system of garbage disposal?

County Executive Charles Ecker has asked the local Solid Waste Funding Assessment Board to recommend a disposal financing plan by Sept. 1, and it might well include a plan whereby residents would have to pay for the removal of their nonrecyclable trash that exceeds a stated limit. Under the present arrangement, the cost of disposal per Howard household comes to about $120 a year and is covered by income and property taxes. Pay-as-you-throw could add another $80 to that figure.

Predictably, the anti-government crowd is already wailing over the idea: Beware of Big Brother in grimy coveralls!

What nonsense. The fact is this could be one of the most sensible ways for the county to address its mounting garbage crisis. Money is sorely needed for the increased cost of transporting trash out of Howard, as well as for environmental cleanups at the county's Alpha Ridge Landfill in Marriottsville and two closed dumps in Ellicott City and Woodbine. Also, falling "tipping fees" at Alpha Ridge will worsen the strain on the county coffers.

Meanwhile, the refuse keeps flowing. An option that has been discussed is to construct another five years' worth of landfill space at Alpha Ridge. However, both the $10 million price tag and the 20-year pay-off period seem prohibitive.

County residents, currently recycling at a rate of 30 percent, will have to do even more. They would likely be motivated to do so by pay-as-you-throw.

This method, incidentally, would at least enable residents to avoid higher taxes -- in contrast to mandatory revenue-generators such as an annual levy or a hike in the property or income tax.

If Howard adopts the plan, the county will be following the lead of the city of Aberdeen in Harford County, which went to the fee system in 1993. After initial grousing from some residents, saw its monthly recycling rate nearly double from 38 tons of reusable materials to about 75 tons.

Howard County might not produce such dramatic results in so short a time, but the pay-as-you-throw proposal would almost certainly lead to a marked increase in local recycling. That, in turn, would help ease the county's trash-disposal crisis.

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