WASHINGTON – Maryland is closing in on its goal of a 40 percent reduction in trash by 2005, but some officials question if the state will put forward the effort to meet the goal — or even if the effort is worthwhile.
Maryland’s counties recycled 36 percent of their trash in 1999, or more than 2.1 million tons of material targeted under the Maryland Recycling Act. Paper accounted for almost two-fifths of that amount.
That is almost twice the mandated minimum level of recycling in the state and just shy of the voluntary 40 percent waste-reduction goal state lawmakers set earlier this year.
Charles Reighart, president of the Maryland Recyclers Coalition, said there is still room for counties to make improvements: He pointed to paper and food waste as the materials that have the most potential to boost the state toward its 40 percent goal.
But officials said the effort needed to make up those few percentage points could be greater than the benefit.
“The voluntary goals are tough because of just that, they are voluntary,” said Chelo Cole, who oversees waste reduction efforts for Prince George’s County. “I think we are going to go ahead and do what we need to do and whatever comes out, comes out.”
Cole said Prince George’s recycling rate is now 36 percent, but he does not foresee the county making an additional push to hit to 40 percent target.
Virginia Lipscomb, a recycling official with the state Department of the Environment, said that the statewide goal was something to shoot for, but she acknowledged that it will be difficult to achieve.
“Most of the traditional programs have been in place, so it is going to get harder and harder to get the additional percentage points,” said Lipscomb.
Counties got a little help from the state when it passed the voluntary 40 percent goal: They were allowed to count up to 5 percent for source reduction, or attempts to stop waste before it occurs.
Several county officials said that if the state was serious about the goal, it should do more to increase incentives for businesses to recycle.
“I think it is useful to set these goals, but at the same time when you set goals, financial obligations have to go with them,” said Rai Sharma, director of public works for Wicomico County. “If it is cheaper (for businesses) to throw it in the landfill, then why recycle?”
Dennis Fleming, chief of solid waste for Charles County, agreed that businesses would not comply with voluntary recycling guidelines if it is not in their interest.
“Well over one half of the recycling is done by the business sector, which does so by financial incentive not by law,” said Fleming. He said the government “should look to create markets” through such measures as tax breaks for recycling plants or requirement to use recycled products.
“If you create a demand for it (recyclables), then you can make money and it naturally goes that way,” he said.
But some analysts are not convinced that the extra cost associated with compelling recycling is worthwhile.
“We have gotten most of the recycling stuff out of the trash,” said J. Winston Porter, president of the Waste Policy Center and a former Environmental Protection Administration official. “We are increasingly going after things that are harder to get to … and that is not very valuable.”
The cost of going after these items must be weighed against the potential good, said Fleming. He said that Charles County is not facing a landfill crisis and that the state should not “recycle for recycling’s sake” if its funds could be put to better use.
But Harvey Hoch, recycling coordinator for Washington County, said that recycling is useful even though his county has enough landfill space to last at least 60 years.
“The government spends a lot of time preserving farms in our community and why should that land go to landfills?” Hoch asked.