St. Mary's residents are recycling less and less solid waste, dropping by nearly 4% from 2016 to 2017, according to the most recent data available from the Maryland Department of the Environment. And, according to county officials, it now costs the county more to recycle trash than it does to take it to a landfill.
As the state agency drafts its annual solid waste report, a chart released this month shows St. Mary's lagging behind 20 other counties in the state, but leading Calvert, Dorchester and Baltimore city, in total percentage of recyclables, which accounts for compostables, glass, metals, paper, plastic and miscellaneous materials, according to 2017 data, the most recent available.
Wicomico County recycled the highest rate in the state, 57.6% of its waste, according to the report, followed closely by Montgomery, Prince George's and Cecil counties. Charles County recycled 46.25% of its waste, and Calvert's rate was 22.84 percent. In total, Maryland recycled 7.4 million tons, or 45% of its solid waste.
St. Mary's recycled more than 53,000 tons, or 29.91% of its solid waste in 2017. While higher than the state-mandated 20% recycling rate for smaller counties, it has dwindled over the years; the county's recycling rate dropped marginally from 40.2% to 39.9% from 2014 to 2015, then decreased to 33.83% in 2016 according to data collected by MDE.
That figure is based on the types of materials that count toward Maryland's recycling rate set out in the Maryland Recycling Act.
Nicholas Zurkan, recycling and solid waste manager for St. Mary's County Department of Public Works and Transportation, attributes the drop to the rising costs of processing recycled materials, and to the fewer businesses who have been reporting their solid waste disposal to public works.
MDE compiles its annual solid waste reports based on data collected from local government surveys, but it is not mandatory for businesses to report.
But beyond that, “It's cheaper to throw it away than recycle,” said John Deatrick, St. Mary's public works director.
The county has a $2.1 million contract with Lucky Dog to haul its solid waste this year. In 2018, the contract was $1.35 million, according to Zurkan.
Single-stream recyclables collected at the county's six trash convenience centers are taken to a Prince George's County sorting center, which costs $68.82 per ton to process. Tipping fees for the King George landfill in Virginia, where most of the county's solid waste is taken, costs $48.88 per ton, and $66.50 a ton at the incinerator in Baltimore, to which the county transports waste on Sundays, Zurkan said. The incinerator generates electricity and provides recycling credits to the county.
Zurkan said in an email that in 2018, recycling costs rose from $32 a ton to $54 a ton, and solid waste disposal costs increased from $38.50 a ton to $48.88 per ton.
The increasing costs are “a deterrent especially for the commercial businesses,” Zurkan said, adding that “some businesses that recycled years ago don't recycle anymore.”
To account for the rising costs, environmental service fees for homeowners of improved properties in St. Mary's increased from $72 to $91 in 2018, and will go up by 2% each subsequent year. This year, residents are paying $92 annually, Deatrick said.
“Recycling is the right thing to do but it has to be cost effective — and it might be another three to five years once the local industries, the recycling facilities find local mills [or] processing facilities they can ship to,” Zurkan said.
“Prices for many recyclable commodities have fallen dramatically, in particular for paper,” Craig Renner, communication director for the Maryland Environment Service, which operates the Prince George's recycling facility, said in an email. “Tipping fees have been increased to make up for this decline in revenue from the sale of recycled materials.”
For years, China was the largest buyer of U.S. recycled materials, but the country restricted its import of certain kinds of recyclables last year, a ban that's weakened recycling efforts throughout the United States.
“China had been the major outlet for single stream material,” Zurkan said. “Now, local recycling facilities are having difficulty finding new markets … cleaning up the recycling stream, and are now faced with getting rid of the contaminates themselves … An expensive predicament.”
But increasing recycling efforts locally is a twofold problem. ”The biggest problem is behavior modification,” Thomas Brewer, president of the St. Mary's commission on the environment, said. The second is cost effectiveness.
The commission has explored ways to boost recycling here over the years, including a weight-based, pay-as-you-throw program, in which residents would pay a disposal fee to dump solid waste at the St. Andrew's Landfill.
“What other areas have done to boost their recycling rate has essentially involved charging to throw waste into the landfill dumpster, but not to … put recyclables into the recycling dumpster,” Brewer said.
That kind of program “provides added revenue to the county,” he said. “Right now at our transfer station in St. Mary's, you simply pull up and throw as much trash as you want in the dumpster, and there's no charge. … If it became cost prohibitive for someone not to recycle, that would motivate them to put in the extra effort.”
Brewer said the notion of the program didn't gather much speed in county government when it was discussed in 2015, given the charges to residents.
The commission is exploring a localized industrial composting facility, which has been its priority for the last four years, Brewer said, adding there seemed to be more momentum in Annapolis to develop supportive composting legislation.