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March 5, 2008

Making Trash Go Away Part One

Kevin E. Dayhoff

On February 26, the Frederick and Carroll County commissioners met to discuss how to make a combined 1,100 tons of trash-a-day go away.


One outcome of the meeting was the Frederick County Commissioners voted to extend a 45-day window of opportunity for the Carroll County commissioners to decide whether or not to join its neighbor in building a two-county waste-to-energy facility.


This comes after two days of hearings in mid-December in which hundreds participated. Then on December 13, in response to requests that Frederick County conduct more studies, the commissioners wisely said enough with the endless studies.


Indeed, the best research and studies are already readily available from the European Union (EU), in addition to over two decades of study and deliberations on the matter in Central Maryland.


This is not the first time that the two counties have discussed joining forces to deal with trash. The waste-to-energy option had earlier been investigated in 1984 with Howard and Carroll counties.


At that time, land and energy prices had cycled to a low point and it was just too easy to buy land and bury the trash.


When the last major solid waste management decision occurred in Carroll County, in 1996 and 1997, I was chair of the Carroll County Environmental Affairs Advisory Board. Then the recommendation of an investigation committee and the Carroll County Department of Public Works was a combination of an aggressive recycling program combined with a regional co-composting option with Adams County, PA.


However, the numbers for building a co-composting facility kept dancing and market uncertainties finally killed that option.


In Carroll County a separate waste-to-energy committee investigated incineration in 1993-1994, and again in 1996. That option was put to rest after a Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority study came out in May 1996 which recommended it “not be considered for at least 10 years.”


In the past several years developing a sound public policy towards trash – one of the basic health, safety, and welfare mandates of local government – has literally and figuratively re-appeared on the front burner of many already involved in community leadership.


To be sure, solid waste management is a perfect storm as it is a toxic mixture of taxation, land use policy, environmentalism, statistics, politics, science, market forces, economics, and it’s personal. So many of the factors that weigh-in on the decision are bewilderingly complicated, national, if not global in scope and scale, constantly evolving and out of the control of local geo-political jurisdictions.


Ever since human beings have walked the planet, trash has been a problem and handled in a manner that has only caused additional problems.


One of the first recorded deliberations over what to do with solid waste occurs as far back as the 23rd Chapter of Deuteronomy in verses 12-13, in the Old Testament of The Bible.


One scholarly account on solid waste noted “the Mayan Indians of Central America had dumps, which exploded occasionally and burned.”


One of the first recorded municipal landfills was developed in Athens, Greece, in 400 BC. In the United States, one of the earliest municipal laws passed about the handling of municipal trash occurred in New Amsterdam, now known as New York. A law was passed in 1654 against throwing trash out into the street.


Apparently that law was only somewhat effective as one historical reference on municipal solid waste reports that in 1880, “New York City scavengers remove 15,000 horse carcasses from the street.”


Another historical account noted that in 1900 there were “over 3 million horses working in American cities, each producing over 20 pounds of manure and gallons of urine per day, most of which is left on the streets… (In 1939) coal and wood ash make up 43% of New York City's refuse, down from 80% in 1916.”


Of course, New York would go on to create the largest man-made structure on the planet when it began the “Fresh Kills” landfill on Staten Island in 1948. According to one source the “Fresh Kills and the Great Wall of China are the only man-made objects visible from space.”


Over the years, there have been essentially four ways of dealing with trash: throwing it in a hole, burying it and walking away; burning it; recycling, and source reduction.


Of the four methods, many who follow environmental issues closely, quickly and easily agree that recycling and source reduction are eventually – and essentially – the best way of managing trash.


Fast forward to today, unfortunately, the co-composting option has continued to prove financially unfeasible.


In February 1996, I was quoted in the paper: “… none of the options of waste disposal are palatable…” Twelve years later I still feel the same way.


There is no silver bullet with trash except for perhaps 100 percent recycling. Increasing every quality of life we enjoy today has an environmental trade-off – and cost.


Meanwhile many have grave concerns that we can currently recycle our way out of our present predicament. In 1970, when I first began speaking out for recycling, the Central Maryland recycling rate was essentially zero.


Almost four decades later it is only around 30 percent. Doubling the recycling rate in five years, as has been suggested by incinerator foes, may be difficult in light of the fact that it has taken us four decades to get the rate to 30 percent.


Besides, interestingly enough, in Carroll County, in April 1994, when a county “Waste-to-Energy Committee” rejected the idea of building an incinerator, the 23 members “instead recommend(ed) aggressive recycling programs… to extend the life of the” landfills in Carroll County.


People who believe that increasing recycling rates in the near future is the answer are dooming our community to another disastrous round of landfilling.


Perhaps it’s time to try another approach to dealing with trash, while revitalized efforts are renewed to increase recycling.


This is where we will pick up this story in Part Two, tomorrow.


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:


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