September 19, 2008

2.4 Million Reasons to Recycle

By ERIC HARTLEY Staff writer

Standing on a gravel lot atop a literal mountain of trash, Rich Bowen looks down and says: "Fifty percent of what's under our feet right now is recyclable."

It's his job as the county's new recycling manager to make sure that doesn't happen again.

You wouldn't know it from gazing out over trees and grassy hills where deer, wild turkeys and foxes roam, but we're at the county landfill in Severn, where the grass covers decades of our old garbage.

Technology has made it so easy to recycle. No more ripping labels off glass jars, no more rinsing out soda cans, no more separating the paper.

Taking out the recycling is literally as easy as taking out the trash, thanks to the "single stream" recycling the county's had for two years. Automated sorters at a contractor's Elkridge warehouse separate the jumbled recyclables.

Yet we still produce prodigious amounts of trash, more than 140,000 tons a year from county curbsides alone, plus all the stuff we throw away at malls, schools and workplaces. Much of it - 60 percent in one survey a few years ago - is recyclable.

In Cell 8 at the landfill, we watch the back of a compacting truck rise up and unceremoniously deposit 10 tons of trash on the ground. More than 30 trucks like this will arrive today.

"Hear all the glass?" Mr. Bowen asks as Hefty bags crash to the ground. As the truck pulls away, a bulldozer pulls up, scooping mounds of the trash into a sloping garbage hill and crushing it under its wide tracks.

Buzzards perch ominously on a dirt pile while seagulls peck at the ground looking for food. Skirting the edge of the pile, we walk over crushed plastic bottles, filthy cardboard boxes and uncountable reams of paper. All going to waste,

It's so easy to throw away a bottle, a can, a newspaper, because the consequences are hidden. Very few people see where their trash goes, and there's little immediate incentive to throw away less stuff. Once you pay your $275 yearly fee for trash collection, it makes no difference - from a purely self-interested standpoint - whether you recycle or not.

About 34 percent of curbside waste is recycled, and the county is making a big push to get it to 50 percent. Mr. Bowen's short-term goal is more modest: 40 percent by August.

What are the stakes here? To put it simply, we're running out of space for trash. And if all the ecological, moral and logistical reasons to recycle don't do it for you, Mr. Bowen tries cold hard logic.

"You're throwing away money," he says.

The day the trucks come to the landfill - known as the Millersville Landfill, even though it's actually in Severn - is an exception. The county usually pays $33 a ton to dump curbside waste in King George, Va., which at current rates means we pay more than $4 million a year.

Last year, by contrast, the county made $2.4 million selling recyclables. Businesses, too, can make big money by selling stuff instead of paying to send it to landfills. Paper, because of high demand, is the best moneymaker.

County residents put 46,000 tons of paper, cans, bottles and jars at their curbs every year, plus another 60,000 tons of yard waste. Mr. Bowen, who was the landfill manager until August, visits malls, offices, schools, homeowners' groups and anyone else who will have him to try to push that figure upward.

A 38-year-old south county native who lives in Shady Side, he's become a sort of evangelist for recycling.

Even the county doesn't always practice what it preaches; one recent letter writer complained to The Capital of trash cans at Broadneck Park overflowing with water bottles. Mr. Bowen says progress is being made, with recycling now done at nine athletic fields and five parks.

Why is it so difficult to convince people to recycle? The biggest obstacle used to be laziness; it was a pain to do.

That's not an excuse anymore, but it's been replaced by simple ignorance. People don't know that sorting is a thing of the past, or they don't know all the things you can recycle.

Almost everyone knows about aluminum soda cans and newspapers; that's the low-hanging fruit. You can also recycle shampoo bottles, metal-hairspray or shaving-cream containers and almost any kind of paper you can imagine, including books, magazines and junk mail.

And don't worry about putting in something that will turn out not to be recyclable. Mr. Bowen says: "They can handle it."

If you've come to the landfill, which sits on about 600 acres in Severn, it's not so easy to toss that water bottle.

The gravel lot atop Cells 5, 6 and 7, which haven't been used in about 15 years, has a great view. Word is it used to be the highest point in the county before decomposition caused the pile to settle. (The highest point is now in Pumphrey.)

From here, you can see grassy Cell 1, which contains trash from the early 1970s. Turn around and you see the 84 acres of trees that will become Cell 9, the last one at this landfill. Once it's ready in about 2013 - the year the Virginia contract expires - all our curbside trash will go to Severn again. Cell 9 should last until 2030.

After that, we're not likely to get another landfill in the county; we will have to pay to get rid of future trash, which leaves a simple equation.

"The more we recycle here ... the longer this will last," Mr. Bowen says. {Corrections:} {Status:}

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