It may look and smell like 10 tons of stale food, old newspapers and used wrappers, but, to Anne Arundel County, this is research material.
For more than a week, a crew of "waste engineers" -- county employees and temporary workers from Baltimore -- have been sifting and sorting through trash at Millersville Landfill in hopes of finding out just what people throw away and whether they could be throwing it somewhere else, namely recycling centers.
As part of the terms of an Environmental Protection Agency grant that helped pay for the study, the county will share its findings with other counties in the Baltimore region to help develop programs to encourage recycling and save landfill space. But beyond what is learned this week about trends in recycling, manufacturing and even society, one definitive truth has emerged: You never know who's going through your trash.
"You'd never believe what people throw away," said Edward McCutcheon from Baltimore as he tosses a funeral program for Dippy Robinson, who died in October, into the paper bin and a working, 35 mm camera into the plastics bin.
Bank notes, credit cards, an engagement picture with the man's head cut out, audiotapes and videotapes, report cards, even money. Monday the group came across a deer carcass -- without a head.
While many of the sifters swear that friends of friends once found a man's toes, self-titled "Chief Trash Man" Stephen Connolly, an engineer who runs the group on contract with the county, said he's never seen any human remains -- just animal.
The sifters often come across dead pets or rodents people caught.
"Last night I told my wife, 'Oh no, don't throw that letter out,' " said Daryl Parker as he tossed aside a new shower head still in its package. "I mean, you think you throw your garbage out and it's gone. You don't think 12 guys are standing around going through your stuff."
The data won't be analyzed for a few weeks, but some trends are beginning to emerge. People seem to be recycling more, Connolly said, shown by the relatively empty bins of aluminum and glass. Discarded, unrecycled plastics have gone way up -- as many county officials expected -- largely due to a change in manufacturing in the 1990s that has exchanged glass containers for plastics.
Inside the makeshift tent on the landfill where the sorting is done, ketchup bottles and take-out food and soda containers nearly filled a 10 gallon bin as the other bins sat half-empty.
The use of plastic foam products, disparaged in the 1980s as among the most harmful trash products because of their resistance to decomposing, seems to be declining, he said. But the use of Styream, a plastic cousin used in things such as yogurt containers, is not.
Three years ago, when the county conducted its first "waste characterization study," it found an inordinate amount of clothing being tossed into trash bins. Since then, the county created the Textile Recycling Program, supplying clothing to the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a nonprofit charity. It's too early to tell if it has had any effect.
"The county makes $170 a ton for all the clothing it now recycles," said Beryl Friel, county recycling projects manager. "That's not going to change the world, or, better, shut the landfill down for three days a week. But it will help us subsidize other programs to get people recycling that wouldn't necessarily pay for themselves."
To make sure the assessment is accurate, the group takes samples from 100 different trucks delivering residential trash, commercial trash and what comes in from highway clean-up crews.
Typically, Connolly said, more affluent neighborhoods discard more magazines, newspapers and white paper, while poorer neighborhoods discard more fast-food containers.
Pub Date: 12/15/98