Even as towns across America expand recycling programs to meet the demands of increasingly green-minded residents, Ocean City is going against the wave. Its final pickup of cans, bottles and paper from homes and businesses will be next week.
Up to three-quarters of the nation now has access to curbside pickup, according to environmental and government groups. But the tourist town is grappling with another national trend: budget troubles. The move will save Ocean City an estimated $1 million in the 2010-2011 fiscal year.
"This was definitely a hard decision," said Richard Malone, deputy director of the Public Works Department, who launched the recycling program 23 years ago and pushed for its demise this month. "I can hardly describe it."
Observers say other towns have at least considered such a move as commodity prices dropped and made programs more expensive than expected. Malone said Ocean City just couldn't afford to recycle anymore, and the City Council voted this month to drop the program.
Some environmentalists and residents acknowledged that Ocean City is in a bad financial spot and at least found an alternative to the landfill — recyclables will be shipped to an energy-producing incinerator. But they worry that dumping the recycling program sends the wrong message.
"It's a shocker," said Steve Farr of the Assateague Coastal Trust, who is working with the neighboring town of Berlin to expand recycling from residences to commercial establishments. "I understand they are losing money and there is a compelling reason to stop. But what concerns me is the headline: We don't recycle, therefore don't worry about it."
Ocean City's budget savings will come largely from eliminating staff. Of the 15 who work on the recycling program, nine are likely to be laid off in the fall unless the town's economic fortunes reverse.
Recyclables will be added to the trash and shipped to a waste-to-energy incinerator in Pennsylvania. All metals are removed from the trash at the waste-to-energy facility and recycled. Residents who still want to recycle can use nearby Worcester County drop-off facilities, town officials say.
Malone said that once all the expenses were tallied, it was costing $162 to haul away a ton of trash and $394 to cart a ton of recyclables. The recycling program's annual bill to the town was $1.5 million, and that was after the quarter of a million in income from the commodities.
But, he said, the recycling will not be totally trashed because it will go to the waste-to-energy incinerator.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers such facilities a viable alternative to landfills because their climate-warming carbon emissions are far lower.
Such incinerators are common in Europe, but most of those in the United States are older and remain controversial. Some environmentalists say they still pollute and are disincentives for using fewer resources and recycling more.
Dave Wilson, executive director of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, a nonprofit group focused on land and water conservation, said Ocean City made a tradeoff that wasn't all bad. Energy will be produced from the trash, a renewable resource, rather than from fossil fuels "taken from an ocean or a West Virginia mountaintop."
He said, "It's not super-clean energy, but it's cleaner energy. It's recycling of another kind."
Still, he said, the focus needs to be on reducing use of resources and reducing waste. He said his group plans to work with Ocean City on that front. Most hotels, for example, ask guests if they will continue using the same sheets and towels for more than one day. He also noted a restaurant that uses biodegradable plates.
Danny Ritz, manager of K-Coast Surf Shop on 35th Street and an avid recycler, said he worries about the message to residents and to visitors, who might feel emboldened to not even properly dispose of trash.
He still plans to collect and drop off his materials where he can.
"I would love for Ocean City to find another way to make people personally responsible for their recycling and their space," he said. "We're a small island, and everyone has got to do their part. And they were. On my block on Mondays, there were two [recycling] bins for every trash can. … I really am sensitive to the money situation, but I don't want to see a lack of personal responsibility."
Jennifer Berry, spokeswoman for earth911.com, a green information clearinghouse, said there are ways for those without recycling in their neighborhoods to take some responsibility.
She said many larger retailers take recyclables, including Target and Best Buy, and other groups set up collection sites. There's a searchable database on the group's website (. She said people want to recycle and reuse as many materials as they can — searches on the site are up 12 percent in the last year, she said.
Berry couldn't name another town that has canceled its recycling program but said there may be others out there. And certainly other towns are feeling the financial pinch.
"People like to think of recycling as a feel-good industry, but these are commodities and people are having a harder time selling them," she said. "A million dollars is a lot of money in any town right now."