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Howard County's recycling program, built on the premise of saving money while saving the environment, has reached a crisis: It will soon cost more to recycle cans, bottles and yard waste than to bury them in a landfill.

That doesn't mean residents should start tossing their cola bottles and grass cuttings into the trash. County officials and recycling experts say market forces could restore the profitability of recyclables in just a few months.

But for now, the problem spotlights an economic quandary at the heart of the recycling revolution across the nation: Can the demand for recyclables keep pace with the ever-growing supply?

"I think what happened is recycling has caught on," says Jack Hollerbach, chairman of a Howard citizens' committee that studied county waste issues. "It's really up to industry right now to find out ways to use these products."

For the county budget, the problems are immediate. Officials are transferring $160,000 to help the recycling program pay its rising bills in the next few months.

For the budget year starting in July, County Executive Charles I. Ecker has proposed increasing the recycling budget by $600,000, to a total of $3.3 million. An error in the county budget office caused Ecker to report incorrectly an even steeper increase at a Monday news conference.

Until just a few months ago, the savings from recycling were clear.

Sending trash to the Alpha Ridge Landfill costs $60 a ton. By comparison, composting yard waste costs $42 a ton. Recycling paper costs the county nothing. And a private

company paid the county $1 to recycle each ton of bottles and cans.

But in the fast-moving recyclables market, none of those prices is holding steady:

In December, the county started spending $20 a ton to crush its recycled paper into one-ton blocks for shipment to the recycling plant. For years, the county's private recycler paid that fee, but it stopped doing so as profits for recycled paper plummeted.

In March, the county started shipping its trash to a landfill in Virginia. The new cost -- $33 a ton -- is nearly half the cost of the Alpha Ridge Landfill. It set a new, low standard against which the cost of recycling is measured.

This month, the county received new bids for its recycling contracts for the first time in five years. Recycling paper will soon cost the county $25 a ton. Recycling cans and bottles will soon cost $42 a ton.

When those new contracts go into effect in July, it will cost the county an average of $33 a ton to dispose of its waste. So for the first time in Howard, it will cost the same whether the waste goes to a landfill or to a recycler.

As for cans, bottles and yard waste, the out-of-state landfill would be cheaper.

Value has gone down

"All of the counties have seen the value of recyclables go down," says Richard Keller, recycling chief at Maryland Environmental Service, a quasi-government agency. "This is not something that's exclusive to Howard County. It's not even something that's exclusive to the state."

The problem, say Keller and others, is straight out of Economics 101.

Unlike an ordinary commodity such as lumber, there is no direct connection between supply and demand for recyclables. An upswing in consumer demand for furniture drives an increasing supply of lumber. When the demand cools, so does the supply: Lumberjacks cut down fewer trees.

The correspondence doesn't work for recyclables. The supply grows without regard to demand. In 1990, Marylanders recycled only 10 percent of their waste. The state recycled 29 percent of its waste, 1.4 million tons, in 1995.

Up-and-down market

Demand has not kept up, leading to wild fluctuations in prices dependent on the health of particular sectors of the state, national and international economies.

"That's the way it has to be," says Robin Depot of the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority. "We can't ask people to store paper in their garages until the market comes back up."

In Howard County, recycling has grown steadily for several years, particularly with the county government boosting it. Ecker gave the program a push last summer when he cut the number of trash cans county waste haulers would collect from eight to four.

Ecker had planned to lower that limit to three cans and to initiate a program in a portion of the county that would charge some residents for each pound of waste. But both policies are now on hold.

Even so, the county now recycles almost one-third of all its waste -- higher than the state average.

Paper trail

Paper is the main item recycled. The county expects to recycle a record 17,600 tons in the year that ends in June. In that same time, county officials expect to recycle 5,100 tons of cans and bottles and 8,000 tons of yard waste.

The paper goes to the Simkins Industries recycling plant on the Patapsco River in Catonsville. Last year, the plant recycled paper from Howard, Carroll and Baltimore counties into 51,000 tons of folding box board, which other plants turned into the bottoms of cardboard gift boxes for Macy's, Wal-Mart and other stores.

Ordinarily that market grows in a late spring seasonal surge, but Jeff Lester, a waste buyer for Simkins plants in three states, says business has not picked up.

"We're in a very slow period right now," Lester says, "and hopefully it will change soon."

Such optimistic comments are common among recycling experts, who have watched prices swing wildly in just a few months. Howard County's new recycling contracts have their prices updated every three months, depending on the market.

Composting site

Howard officials also look forward to the day when the regional composting facility in Dorsey -- closed in January because of odor and health complaints from neighbors -- is sold.

Debt payments on that facility account for more than one-third of the county's composting costs. The costs grew sharply when the county began shipping its compost to a facility in Prince George's County because of complaints in Dorsey.

But recycling advocates say the lesson is larger.

The problem is not too much recycling, they say, but that there isn't enough demand from manufacturers for recycled materials.

Until consumers demand that more products -- bottles, desks, newspapers -- be made from recycled material, the market for recyclables will threaten to bust budgets, recycling advocates say.

"It's kind of a vicious cycle," says Depot of the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority. "If we stop recycling, we'll never create a market."

Pub Date: 4/23/97

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