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Workers sort recycling material at the Waste Management Material Recovery Facility in Elkridge, Maryland, June 28, 2018. Some 900 tons of trash are dumped at all hours of the day and night, five days a week, on the conveyor belts at the plant.
Workers sort recycling material at the Waste Management Material Recovery Facility in Elkridge, Maryland, June 28, 2018. Some 900 tons of trash are dumped at all hours of the day and night, five days a week, on the conveyor belts at the plant. (SAUL LOEB /AFP/Getty Images)

Baltimore County hasn’t had a buyer for recycled glass in seven years. And so, all those bottles, jars and similar items picked up on weekly recycling days from Maryland Line to Halethorpe have not been crushed, melted down and turned into another generation of glass products, but instead ended up in a county landfill.

This circumstance, first reported by The Towson Flyer this past weekend, earned a lot of tut-tuts on social media. And county officials seemed a little embarrassed as well, explaining that was not of County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.'s doing, but a problem inherited from the previous administrations, and further, that they are in the midst of negotiating with a new vendor. “It’s unfortunate that we can’t tell people we have a better solution right now," Steve Lafferty, the former delegate and now the county’s sustainability officer, told The Sun’s Lillian Reed.

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We would urge Mr. Lafferty and others to secure such a recycling vendor even if it does add to the county’s solid waste budget but, in their defense, there are limits to what can be done. For those who have been paying attention to issues of sustainability, Baltimore County’s difficulties should come as no surprise. The uncertainties of recycling extend far beyond Maryland’s borders. Glass recycling is but one example.

Nationwide, the U.S. only recycles about 40% of the glass that gets tossed into recycling bins, according to the Glass Packaging Institute. The problem isn’t as simple as securing a vendor, it has to do with the economics of glass manufacturing, particularly energy prices, government policies and consumer behavior. Recycling generally works best when there is demand for the commodity involved — glass, paper or plastic — and there often isn’t. By not recycling glass, Baltimore County saved thousands of dollars in added shipping costs associated with sending it to places that might actually use it. But the problem is bigger than that. If people don’t wash their recycling sufficiently, for example, there’s no market for the material. Single-stream recycling collections actually add to the problems as well because of cross-contamination.

The cynical among us may wonder: Why bother? If my glass bottle is just going to get buried in a landfill anyway, why not just toss it in the trash? That kind of thinking is a problem in itself. If consumers believe there’s no point in recycling, the concept of sustainability is certain never to work. The economics of recycling can change overnight; it’s tougher to change people’s behavior. That’s why Baltimore County is put in a difficult position by all this. County officials were not exactly open about their recycling shortcomings of the past, likely for this very reason.

Still, it’s not enough to find someone to take away Baltimore County’s glass, particularly if glass manufacturers find it more economical to make glass from scratch than reuse old materials. What’s needed is a push on the other side of the economic ledger. Baltimore County residents, along with their fellow Marylanders and all Americans, need to consume less, reuse more and increase demand for goods made from recycled materials. Just as Maryland has begun requiring electricity to be supplied by renewable sources, government and the private sector ought to impose similar targets on goods. How much paper shuffled in the halls of the Towson Courthouse is made from recycled materials? How many paper towels or napkins in the State House? Or tissues at Johns Hopkins University? Or cafeteria glassware at Under Armour? Or how about attracting to Baltimore County companies that make products from recycled materials? If consumers show a preference for recycled goods, there’s little doubt that manufacturers will move heaven and earth to meet the demand.

This country can clearly do a better job at recycling. Experts estimate about 75% of the existing trash stream is recyclable but Americans only recycle about one-third. Merely dropping the glass in a blue bin on recycling day is not enough. We need to make broader policy changes and better educate consumers. The necessity of this is clear: The world is on a path to environmental ruin. The accumulation of plastic materials in our land and oceans alone is considered one of the single greatest environmental threats. Here’s just one example: Studies show 90% of dead seabirds have plastic in their bodies. The world is literally drowning in trash. Good intentions aren’t enough. It’s time to fix this country’s ineffective recycling system whether by government mandate or voluntary action. The seven lost years of glass recycling in one county is trivial compared to these broader challenges.

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