This story was corrected April 25, 2013. An explanation follows the story.
Montgomery County residents are turning trash into real treasure for the county and leading the state in doing so.
According to the Maryland Department of the Environment, the county has the highest recycling rate, 57.68 percent, and waste diversion rate, 62.68 percent, of all jurisdictions in the state.
In fiscal 2012, which ended June 30, the sale of collected recyclables earned $3.9 million, covering the $3.3 million operating costs for recycling services within the Division of Solid Waste Services. The revenue also helped fund improvements at the recycling center on Shady Grove Road in Derwood, said Eileen Kao, chief of the Waste Reduction and Recycling Section for the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Solid Waste Services.
“We are an enterprise fund and are required to bring in revenue and cover the cost of operations, which includes, personnel, facilities and services,” Kao said.
The county’s integrated solid waste management system includes four facilities: the Transfer Station, the Resource Recovery Facility, the Recycling Center and the Compost Facility. In addition, the county owns two closed landfills: the Gude Landfill and the Oaks Landfill, Kao said in an email.
April is a busy month for Kao and her co-workers in the Division of Solid Waste Services. Between activities her group organizes in celebration of Earth Day on Monday and those it has been invited to participate in, she said the calendar for the month includes 54 events.
“I have found it’s not just Earth Day, we think of every day as Earth Day, it’s becoming Earth Month,” Kao said. “It’s definitely a very good thing. Folks are so much more aware of things they can do to protect our natural resources for the future.”
The county started its recycling efforts in the 1970s with newspaper recycling, Kao said.
“Then recycling of materials was not done just for the revenue, it was done in earnest because it was the right thing to do,” she said.
Montgomery County enacted its first recycling initiative in 1993. That mandated recycling across all the sectors of the county including single-family and multi-family dwelling units, businesses and organizations, including nonprofit and government organizations. It also included a list of materials to be recycled.
Enforcement comes in the form of education first, Kao said, though enforcement officers can write citations and impose fines if necessary. She said it rarely comes to that.
“We do see that in the county people [see the value of recycling],” she said.
The Montgomery County Recycling Center, which processes all the recycling collected in the county, opened in 1991. It is located on the site of the Shady Grove Processing Center and Transfer Station where residents and haulers bring material, which is then delivered to its corresponding facility for processing. The Recycling Center is a maze of conveyer belts carrying collected material through magnets, shakers and crushers. Forklifts and front-end loaders move things about and it is very noisy — so noisy that visitors are given earplugs before going in to observe the operation.
Twenty-three workers watch the belts as “trash” goes by, pushing materials in the right direction so all metals go one place, plastics to another, separating glass and removing paper and plastic bags.
“We don’t do plastic bags, every grocery store has a place to recycle plastic bags,” Peter Karasik, who oversees the operations at the center, said. “If there is a good recycling infrastructure out there where materials are being handled well we don’t want to interfere with it.”
Thousands of people visit the center each year including schoolchildren, families and people from across the U.S. and the world, Karasik said.
“We get visitors from the Environmental Protection Agency and internationally from the World Bank and [U.S. Agency for International Development],” he said.
They come, he said, because Montgomery County is one of the most awarded and recognized recycling centers in the country. Also the proximity to Washington, D.C., makes it a nice field trip for international visitors interested in recycling.
After separating items, now called commodities by those in the business, they are bailed and shipped to purchasers who turn them into their own kind of treasure. Plastic bottles, for instance, can be broken down and the fibers spun into material for rugs, fiberfill or fleece. The rug in the visitor center is made from recycled plastic.
About a dozen commodities including aluminum, glass and metals are put out for bids every month, Karasik said. Staying on top of the resale market is important, he said.
“The markets are very volatile; we try to get the best price,” he said.
In fiscal 2012, aluminum prices ranged from a high of $1,920 per ton in August 2011 to a low of $1,390 per ton in July 2011. Other commodities such as tubs and lids showed a low to high range of $180-$280 per ton and clear plastic PET (polyethylene terephthalate), such as water bottles, ranged from $672 per ton in October 2011 to a low of $400 per ton in January 2012.
Karasik explained that plastics are sorted and sold separately according to chemical makeup.
Soda bottles are different from plastic jugs and there is a category he called “tubs and lids” which includes containers like those used for cottage cheese and yogurt.
“Everything has a lot of value except the mixed broken glass,“ he said, adding that in some cases the recycling center will actually pay to have mixed glass removed from the facility.
Aluminum is the most profitable recycled material because of its high resale value, according to Karasik.
One of the county’s newest commodities is the molded clear plastic containers that berries and salads come in. They were added to the recyclable list in 2012.
“It’s being more and more widely used, so it was a great step forward to find a market for it,” he said.
Despite leading the state, Montgomery County has its sights set even higher. The new goal, established by the county executive in 2012, is a 70 percent recycling rate by 2020.
That number, Kao said, is exciting.
“It does show that Montgomery County has been so committed to protecting the environment and preserving natural resources,” she said.
The revenue from the county’s recycling operation covers the recycling services costs not the entire Department of Solid Waste Services.
Freelance Writer Lauren Loricchio contributed to this report.