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January 9,  2006

  Does anyone think that environmental secretary John Hughes's decision about expanding the Cherry Island Marsh landfill is going to have a significant impact on New Castle County's waste disposal problem? While buying a little additional time to come up with a workable alternative to simply burying potentially reusable trash, he appears ready to waste much of that time by going down the same well-worn path hoping to discover something that didn't turn up before.

If anyone thinks his decision is going to spark some real action, think again. At best it will be as effective as combating speeding by putting'reduce speed' signs on the interstate.

Simply put, the landfill is running out of room. So Delaware Solid Waste Authority petitioned the Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control for permission to increase its authorized height to 300 feet. That immediately set off alarms among environmental activists and residents of southeastern Brandywine Hundred and northeastern Wilmington and for good reason. The prospect of a gargantuan Mount Trashmore off Interstate 495 southeast of Edgemoor isn't appealing for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is its potential health risk.

Hughes's ruling was that the dump can grow, but only by about 30 feet to 195 feet And that, he said in effect, is as high as the regulatory agency is willing to go.

So what happens when the new limit is reached? The press handout the department issued did not speculate on when that might be. Previously published data indicates we're talking six to 10 years.

So what's to be done in the meanwhile to avoid a major crisis a few years hence?

One of the strings attached to the not-yet-made-public implementing order: "Submit to [the department] within six months a comprehensive recycling plan to maximize diversion of wastes from the landfill with an overall goal of diverting 40% of municipal solid waste."

Hello.

On which planet has Secretary Hughes been hanging out during the past five years while the question of how to provide for a reasonable amount of recycling has been studied, restudied and studied some more?

A year-long study directed by the solid waste authority under an agreement with Hughes's department and the governor's Recycling Public Advisory Council produced a detailed plan that would require households throughout the state to set aside designated recyclable material for separate pickup with the solid waste authority, private recyclers or a combination of both processing it for sale and eventual reuse.

Recognizing that legislation to implement such a plan would be nearly impossible to wrest from the General Assembly, Governor Ruth Ann Minner's staff toned down the recommendation and produced a proposal for a voluntary recycling arrangement. Introduced last June, proposed legislation to implement it is pending as the Assembly returns for the second half of its session. Even though it would produce as weak a recycling law as could be imagined, observers feel it too has little or no chance of passage. Downstate legislators don't like what they perceive to be a foot-in-the-door approach.

Recycling has its advocates, most of whom are already recycling -- to the tune of about 5% of the potential volume of recyclable material.

What clearly is needed is a recycling law with teeth. Everybody does it and if you're caught not doing it you're fined enough to make you wish you had.

That's hardly a radical approach. Recycling is an accepted way of domestic life in many communities. Two containers under the kitchen sink is commonplace. Four is not all that rare.

The 2004 study concluded that a recycling program has to be convenient and not costly. Both of those conditions can be easily met. State legislation can provide for county government to establish trash districts. Waste collecting firms bid for exclusive franchises to serve each of the districts -- either just with regard to recyclables or all trash.

Whether the county collects through the property tax or a separate fee or the haulers bill customers, exclusiveness and compact routes should come close to offsetting the added cost of a separate recyclables collection. Less frequent collecting of a smaller volume of ordinary trash also would come into play.

Small firms in the business don't like that idea. They can be accommodated by tailoring some of the districts to a size where it is cost-effective for the moms-and-pops and not so for the biggies or with some kind of set-asides. Municipal governments don't like being forced into the recyclables collection business. Incorporated areas already have the option of having county government provide selected services. There is no reason contracted hauling can't be one of those.

But even an effective recycling program is not going to erase the waste disposal problem. There will still be trash that can't be recycled and, given the volatile nature of the scrap business, recyclables that cannot be sold for reuse.

It comes down to the 'I' word.

It's time to look very seriously at the state law enacted several years ago to restrict trash incineration. Incineration is still controversial although it can be argued that up-to-date technology minimizes risks. The questions, however, are not whether to burn the stuff but how and where to burn it.

The time and cost of another recycling study would be better directed to answering the former. The latter seems a no-brainer. The nearly full landfill happens to be situated next to Delmarva Power's principal electricity generating station. Incineration provides energy to run turbines that generate electricity. That could even soften the rate increases associated with electricity deregulation.

No one suggests that the decisions which have to be made in the wake of Hughes's order will come easily. But they will come a darn sight easier that deciding where in New Castle County to locate the new landfill that will replace Cherry Island Marsh when it is closed.

  Would you believe stardust? Make that cometdust.

For thousands of years, stargazers on Earth have marveled at the ghostly beauty of comments as they streak across the night sky trailing tails of fire, wondering what they are and where they come from. Today's scientists have many of the answers, but on Jan. 15 in the Utah desert, barring a mishap, they will have another. The first-ever mission to fly to deep space and steal samples from one of these cosmic travelers will be returning home.  MORE

  Jan. 17 is the 300th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Franklin. CLICK HERE to reach U.S. History.org and what may be the most comprehensive and best website appropriate for the occasion.

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