July 17, 2003

Northern Delaware is virtually unique among urban areas when it comes to the way it handles recycling, but it would be relatively easy to get into step with the rest of the nation, according to the top local official for the area's and the country's largest trash-hauling firm.

Steve Masterson, district manager for Waste Management of Delaware, told Delaforum that there soon will be no alternative to doing so. The dispute over whether the Cherry Island Marsh landfill should be expanded is likely to force the issue.

His company, he said, is more than willing to take on residential side of a mandatory program or even a voluntary one if it had enough participants for it to be cost-justified.

The problem hereabouts, he said, is "you can't get any one organization to agree to anything."

As a result, the state and particularly populous New Castle County is one of a very few and still dwindling number of locales where residential recycling is not yet a routinely accepted fact of life. Elsewhere, householders are daily sorting wastes into varying numbers of categories for regular curbside pick-up. In some northern New Jersey communities, separate containers requirements are drawn to fine lines between clear and colored glass.

The anomaly of disposing of everything from garbage to waste paper, plastic bottles and grass clippings in a single unit is surprising given almost unanimous public opinion that recycling is a good thing and that practical alternatives are clearly unacceptable. Steadily mounting opposition to expansion of the Cherry Island Marsh landfill at a time when most residential recycling comes down to having to personally cart the stuff to one of the sites where 'igloos' are provided to receive it.

Masterson draws a sharp distinction between residential recycling and handling material from other sources. The industrial and commercial community in the area is all but totally committed to it and Waste Management, through a subsidiary, does a thriving business processing and disposing of it.

While literally everything is theoretically recyclable, the economics of the resale business determine that somewhere between a quarter and a third of material that gets thrown away around the house and buried in the landfill would constitute a viable residential program, he said.

The equation which determines whether it can be collected separately and resold, "comes down to weight versus volume," he said. Scrap steel and other metals, particularly aluminum, top the list. of acceptables. The sheer amount of what is thrown away makes paper the most common commodity that is recycled, although the price that mills are willing to pay for it fluctuates sharply.

That is not to say that the field is static. "They are finding all sorts of ways to use recyclables -- things that were never thought of before," Masterson said.

He said that the landfill dispute could easily be the catalyst that spurs the General Assembly or county government to mandate recycling. If that does not happen sooner than later, the state and county will literally run out of disposal space. Delaware will then have to join larger and more populous areas and haul wastes to distant disposal sites. The cost involved in that will be considerably more than what would be required for an effective recycling program.

Waste Management, Masterson said, has long advocated setting up arrangements with civic associations whereby residents of a given area agree to engage a single trash hauler in return for a discounted rate.. He said that would be economically feasible from the company's point of view in an area with 500 customers. "We've even offered to do it with 90% participation," he said.

That standing offer applies to general trash, but that kind of arrangement would work equally well with recyclables, he said.

The company has no dispute with the Delaware Solid Waste Authority, he said. "Cherry Island is a well-run landfill," he said. "Their people are very knowledgeable."

He declined specific comment on the authority's current effort to promote a voluntary recycling program with residents paying a monthly fee to participate. If nothing else, he did say, that will provide a measure of how willing Delawareans are to back up their professed support of recycling.

When all is said and done, "people don't want to change," he said.

"Delaware residents have had it very good for a very long time. They [can] put everything out on the curb and it gets hauled away. ... But I think many are beginning to realize that it's not always going to be that easy."

2003. All rights reserved.

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