B'More Recycling- Far lower than previously thought

(Tim Wheeler is away this week. The following is a guest post by Laurel Peltier, who publishes the down-to-earth "eco-glancer" www.greenlaurel.com)

Many Marylanders like to think of themselves as pretty green. But are we? If you peeked at curbside recycling rates, you may be surprised to find that we're a lighter shade of green than we thought. 

When it comes to recycling, the state Department of the Environment says we’re diverting 41 percent of our trash statewide from landfills and incinerators - well above the 34 percent national average, as figured by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Across the state, recycling rates range from a low of 18 percent in rural Somerset County to nearly 57 percent in suburban Harford County, according to MDE.

But not so fast.  Most homeowners recycle far less than previously thought.  Baltimore County recently published a neighborhood-by-neighborhood list of recycling rates among its residents, and the results are sobering.  They range from a high of 30 percent in Brooklandville/Ruxton to a measly 4 percent in southern Essex. 

Even with Baltimore County's simpler single-stream program, the household recycling rate is just 15 percent. That figure is far below the 50 percent rate considered well within reach – and which is actually exceeded in uber-green places like San Francisco. 

Why the differing numbers?  The state-generated recycling figures are higher because they cover “total materials diverted from the landfill,” which is a combo of residential, business, yard waste, and other materials. Households are recycling far less than offices, stores, contractors or factories.

For a long time, local governments figured householders were too stuck in their ways to change their recycling habits, so they focused their efforts on businesses.  But now they’re waking up to the hard fiscal facts that low residential recycling is costing taxpayers money that they can’t afford to waste anymore – if they ever could.

Baltimore County's only landfill is already half-full, for example, and the county is wasting a lot of cash in extra disposal fees to landfill recyclables - an extra $57 per ton, to be exact.

In 2011, 48,000 tons were recycled, yet 90,000 tons of recyclables were landfilled, costing Baltimore County an extra $5.1 million in disposal fees. Those 90,000 tons that residents chose not to recycle could have been sorted, baled and sold as raw materials for pizza boxes and soda cans, to name just a few alternative uses.

Baltimore County isn't unique in wasting money to dispose of recyclables. Baltimore City residents, who also have single-stream, recycle only 18 percent of household trash. In 2011, the city burned $3.1 million of recyclables at the BRESCO waste-to-energy facility.  

That’s why, in a bid to raise the bar for residents, Baltimore County posted neighborhood recycling rates online at www.bcrecycles.com. Maybe a little competition will gin things up?

“Our hope is that when residents see their true recycling rates, they will make the behavioral changes needed to bump up single-stream rates,” said Clyde Trombetti, a public information specialist at the Department of Public Works.

Baltimore County residents who want to see how they and their neighbors stack up can check on www.bcrecycles.com   Here are the county’s recycling leaders and laggards:

1)   Brooklandville/Ruxton                     30%

2)   Timonium/Campus/Towson East      24%

3)   Catonsville/Oella                           24%


42)  Baltimore Highlands                      5%

43)  Lochearn/Colonial Village               5%

44)  Essex (southern)                          4%


Anne Arundel County’s trying to up its recycling game with what it calls the 50/50 Challenge.  It recently mailed postcards to residents outlining their area’s recycling rate and even gave out “grades" from Poor to Excellent for rates ranging from 30 percent to 53 percent, including yard waste and ecycling. http://www.recyclemoreoften.com/ 

“Anne Arundel County has spotlighted residential recycling through TV and print ads, mailers, contests and even free recycling bins for all residents,” according to county spokesman David Abrams. “We saw a big jump in single-stream rates, which now average 26 percent -- a ten point bump.”

Not bad.  But the new, improved rate is still barely halfway toward the 50 percent mark. What if government tried even harder to inform and encourage people to recycle?  Neighborhood contests, with prizes? Charging for waste collection by pound? Follow Pittsburgh, San Diego and San Francisco's lead and make residential recycling mandatory?

For those who’d like to raise their recycling game without gimmicks or government intervention, here are a few tips:

1.  Organize: Ensure your trash system is set-up for half recycling and half trash.  

2.  Know the “yes” list: Click here for a terrific one-pager with pictures, courtesy of Baltimore City.

3.  Nudge. Be an advocate: Old habits die hard, and people have silly reasons for not recycling. Here’s some ammo: recycling doesn’t get burned; not recycling drives up trash expenses; and single-stream can’t get easier, unless a house elf does it for you.  

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