The first question is: “How can you lift those containers all day?” The answer, delivered at the end of our driveway a couple of weeks ago, with a big smile and a flexed right arm, was, “Strength, man.”

But seriously, guys, that’s an average of 50 pounds (or more) per cart, up to 400 times a day, according to Rebecca Culler, recycling program manager in the Frederick County Department of Solid Waste Management. Plus, she said, “they work in all [kinds of] weather, start early in the morning” and “walk miles a day behind a truck.” Have to be generous here and cut that tonnage in half if there are two recycling workers per truck — still a lot of lifting.

The next question is: Why don’t the recycling trucks from Ecology Services Inc., in Columbia, have those hydraulic arms that automatically pick up the containers, like most of the residential trash trucks around here? “There are many collection trucks designs, at varying efficiencies and costs,” Culler explained, adding that how the contract is fulfilled is up to the contractor.

Along with that, it would be interesting to know the turnover rate of the manual loaders and the frequency of back claims. But I’m still waiting for those answers from the recycling contractor. It’s only been two weeks.

You’d think the company could afford automatic lift trucks. For services in fiscal year July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019, Ecology Services billed the county $4,057,759.99. When you top $4 million, I was wondering if adding the spare change — like 99 cents — is really necessary.

That’s at a rate of $3.91 per household — estimated at 80,000 homes — plus flat rates for hauling recyclables from county office buildings. And they only take it to the county landfill’s transfer station, they don’t haul it away. Bousum Transfer, of Petersburg, Pennsylvania, takes it to another Maryland site, in Elkridge, for sorting, operated by Waste Management Recycle America. If you like to collect acronyms, add MRF to your list, for material recovery facility.

Which leads to: Where does it all go and what do they do with it? Culler explained that after the tractor-trailer loads of recyclable material from our landfill are dropped off at the Elkridge facility, large bucket loaders transfer it to giant conveyor belts. It is then screened and sorted, collected by material type, baled, tied and sold to manufacturers to create new products.

Check out a 4½-minute clip of the Elkridge operation, if you can get by the clunky web address: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GroeqVYSkGk.

That clip should be an invaluable aid to parents and guidance counselors who need help persuading a student to stay in school. It shows workers in hard hats, gloves and dust masks pulling unwanted material off fast-moving conveyor belts in as dusty and dirty conditions as you can imagine. It also brings back painful memories of a mind-numbing, dizzying job from the late ’50s, picking pieces of mine timbers off a fast-moving ore-processing conveyor belt at the now-closed Climax Molybdenum Co. near Leadville, Colorado.

Well, OK then, we must make some money from all that recyclable material that’s been collected, hauled and sorted. Not exactly. “Currently, there is no net revenue,” Culler said in an email. “The income we receive from the sale of recyclable materials offsets some of the costs of collection and processing, but not all. And the income itself fluctuates regularly based on the quantity and types of material, and, like any commodity, in response to changes in the market. Currently, markets are at historic lows.”

Culler also explained that “the total revenue per ton, per month, before they charge the processing expense, for the last few months has averaged around $12 per ton.” The county believes in the long-term benefits of recycling, she said, and the goal is to meet the state mandate of 35 percent waste recycled annually and the county’s goal of 60 percent “waste diversion” by 2025.

It’s disheartening to think that one of those recyclable materials, and a big contributor to the recycling stream — newspapers — containing some of those painstakingly crafted columns, can be turned into egg cartons, construction paper, boxes, and ugh — cat litter. But also, more newsprint. It does live on.

(Next time: How we experienced the most dangerous site in the landfill and lived to tell about it.)

Recycled Bill Pritchard, who worked in community journalism for 30 years, with no heavy lifting involved, writes from Frederick. Reach him at billpritchard.1@gmail.com.

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