Inside a large warehouse at the county landfill on Reichs Ford Road southeast of Frederick, trucks dump loads of garbage and recyclable materials.
After being sorted — some with the assistance of a large crane — the garbage or recyclables are dumped through slots into large trucks, taking the former to a landfill in Pennsylvania, the latter to a materials processing center in Elkridge.
There’s a decent amount of activity daily at this transfer station, contrasted to the simple action of county residents tossing recyclables into their blue bin and putting it curbside every two weeks.
But now, given current costs of recycling, officials will have to determine if the county needs to change the way it recycles, or if it needs to charge property owners more to help with those costs.
Rebecca Culler, the county’s recycling program manager, said demand for the curbside recycling program is growing: About 150 households are added weekly.
One of the issues, however, is that in the past year, commodity prices of several recyclables dropped considerably. And the overall cost of recycling this year has been more than $6 million, Culler said.
Those costs are:
- $3.5 million to collect residents’ recycling curbside.
- $2 million to $2.5 million for processing costs.
- $1 million to ship the recyclables to the materials processing center in Elkridge. There, the recyclables are sorted, bailed and sold on the market.
Despite these costs, Culler and Annmarie Creamer, a recycling outreach program analyst with the county, said recycling operations are not meant to make money for the county.
Still, county officials are going to have to decide how to deal with the aforementioned deficit. At a County Council meeting in late October, senior officials in the Division of Utilities and Solid Waste Management told council members it’s possible that the system benefit charge, or SBC, could be increased to pay for some of those costs, and to increase recycling and similar services countywide.
Currently, the SBC is $88 annually for residential properties. For commercial businesses, it varies from $42 to $372 annually, Culler said.
Culler and Creamer said the SBC hasn’t been changed since the county’s recycling program started more than a decade ago, so it makes sense to raise it, given the county’s increased demands.
No matter what happens, they also said it’s unlikely the county will change what it accepts for its curbside program in the near future. Culler said recycling, despite its costs, is important from an environmental perspective.
“There are known benefits to recycling, and it comes straight down to resource recovery,” Culler said. “So metal is only on our planet one time, how you choose to use it and where you choose to dispose of it, makes a huge difference in further mining of metals, and how we choose to reuse that.
“From a resource recovery standpoint, recycling is always going to be the better option. It’s always going to be more sustainable.”
Residents can assist county officials in their efforts by keeping their recyclables clean, which helps lead to more valuable products once they reach the Elkridge site, Creamer said.
“You’d be surprised the number of people who get through half their container of Cheez Whiz or spaghetti sauce ... and decide it’s past their expiration date and will put it into the [blue] bin,” she said.
The contamination rate, or percentage of items that end up not being recyclable and tossed into the trash, is currently 10 percent, according to a recent analysis done by the county. Creamer and Culler said that’s good compared with the national average — roughly 25 percent — but noted there’s always room for improvement.
Councilman Phil Dacey (R), however, has concerns about recycling costs. In October, he initiated questioning with officials about what is being done to address cost.
Dacey is against increasing the SBC, and noted the county could be saving money on fuel costs and other areas if it re-examines how and what it recycles.
“It sounds good and makes people feel good, but I think it’s our responsibility to make sure we’re good fiscal stewards,” Dacey said of the overall costs.
“There’s value beyond the dollars and cents and we’re using fewer raw materials,” he added when asked about whether the county should recycle despite the costs. “But I do think the market will largely determine that information and that kind of feedback.”
Councilman Kai Hagen (D) wasn’t opposed to increasing the SBC, but said the county needs to look at other recycling alternatives.
“Before I would support an increase in the system benefit charge, I would like to see a greater, more effective commitment to reducing organic material and other items in our waste stream,” Hagen said.
No matter what happens, Creamer and Culler urged residents reach out via social media, email or phone if they have questions about recycling. Creamer said the public has a say when it comes to recycling issues, and how they want the system to work.
“The voters have a huge sway. Public input in Frederick County matters a lot. ... The public voice carries a lot of weight with the County Council and the county executive. ... What do they want to see in their community?” she said.