Moth-eaten blankets? Broken old television? Sludgy nail polish?

Baltimore County wants it all.

Grappling with diminishing capacity at its last remaining landfill, Baltimore County is playing catch-up with the rest of the state by adding textiles — such as clothes, shoes, purses and backpacks, towels, curtains and sheets — to the list of things residents can drop off at the county’s three recycling facilities.

But following years of poor recycling rates and lessened waste diversion, solid waste officials say they want to expand programs to encourage those who live in the county to recycle materials beyond what’s picked up curbside.

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“Everything we’re doing is built around preserving our landfill’s lifespan,” said Nick Rodricks, chief of Baltimore County’s solid waste bureau.

On a hot Thursday morning in September, a steady stream of vehicles — carrying everything from a Victorian dollhouse to a smoker grill — rolled slowly through well-marked travel lanes at the Central Acceptance Facility in Cockeysville, snaking between drop-off areas to leave materials that aren’t collected curbside (currently, Baltimore County picks up plastics, cardboard, soda cans, glass, and metal products such as soda cans and tin foil).

But for the uninitiated, solid waste officials make the trip easy: Toss that old record player in one of the cardboard boxes brimming with broken audio speakers and televisions. Take near-empty cans of pesticides, paints and motor oil to the recycling staffer shaded by a wooden ramada marked for hazardous household waste — right near the “barrels and barrels of stuff that could explode,” as county recycling manager Trevor Hummel puts it.

Don’t worry. The county has a chemist on-hand to prevent that from happening, Hummel added.

Fluorescent bulbs and indoor grow lights can be dropped in a shed marked for lightbulb recycling. A hill of scrap metal near excavator trucks announces where to find bins to dispose of metal products such as smoking grills, garment hangers and fencing materials.

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And with newly contracted textile recycling company Helpsy, big blue bins to the left of the Central Acceptance Facility entrance advertise where to drop bags of most household textiles, such as clothes, shoes, backpacks, sheets, towels, blankets, small throw rugs — items the county’s solid waste bureau chief, Rodricks, said were found in abundance while checking trash at the Eastern Sanitary Landfill.

You can recycle clothing and shoes in Baltimore County as well. September 7, 2023.
You can recycle clothing and shoes in Baltimore County as well. (Krishna Sharma)

Recycled waste winds up in the Materials Recovery Facility, a $30 million Cockeysville factory that looks like a detritus-themed Chutes and Ladders. Items are sorted, baled and (hopefully) sold to the highest bidder. Baltimore County provides a long list of nonprofits and other organizations that accept certain items that can be reused rather than processed in the recovery facility, such as clothes for people staying in Baltimore-area homeless shelters.

Textiles picked up by Helpsy can be donated to nonprofits, thrift stores or repurposed as rags for industrial use, insulation and stuffing. Most of what the northeastern for-profit company takes is reusable, according to Helpsy.

The county also brought on electronics recycling contractor Securis, a “data destruction” company, to add roughly 30 new electronics to the list of recyclable items that can be dropped off, including old cathode-ray TVs.

“Some of this will be disassembled for parts,” Hummel said. “What can’t be disassembled, the metal, a lot of it goes into a gigantic wood chipper or metal [shredder], which just pelletize the metal and plastics.”

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Granular plastics and metal are then sold as raw materials to make safety helmets, electric car parts, conductive wiring, bicycle frames, golf clubs or electronic devices.

The overarching goal, Hummel said, is to “break the cycle” of waste.

If we want to get to that next level, then it’s got to come from a place of governance.

Trevor Hummel, Baltimore County recycling manager

Shortly after a 2021 consultant report issued grim findings that the Eastern Sanitary Landfill may have only six years of life left, employees in the Department of Public Works and Transportation found themselves wading through heaps of trash in a landfill for unenviable treasure — recyclables.

“We literally dove into trash and started to pull apart bags,” Rodricks said; new recycling programs “are a direct response to what was actually being thrown away.”

Preserving capacity at the White Marsh landfill, where more than 490,000 tons of trash was dumped in 2021, is partly contingent on residents’ recycling rates, Rodricks said.

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“Recycling is a key factor” in County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.’s administration and its “commitment to environmental health,” he said in a statement.

It’s the ”responsible path in reducing the amount of waste sent to our landfills, reducing greenhouse gases, and creating a sustainable future for this generation and the next,” Olszewski said.

But Baltimore County’s recycling programs have lagged behind what most other Maryland jurisdictions have been doing for years.

It’s among a handful of jurisdictions that have regularly failed to meet recycling rates mandated under the Maryland Recycling Act — along with Baltimore City, Frederick County, and Dorchester and Somerset counties on the Eastern Shore.

Jurisdictions with more than 150,000 residents must recycle 35% of their total waste tonnage, according to the Maryland Recycling Act, codified in 1988. Those that don’t meet the benchmark risk state moratoria on new development; local officials can also pause building permits.

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But Baltimore County hasn’t hit that goal since 2017, according to the most recent data available. Its recycling rates declined to an all-time low in 2021, when state reports say Baltimore County recycled one-third less than what it recycled a decade prior.

The county and Baltimore City have been the only municipalities not collecting textiles until this year. And while certain public schools and other facilities are now required to divert food waste from landfills, and suburban Baltimore has yet to start collecting food scraps — the second-largest volume of recyclables Maryland jurisdictions recycled in 2021 — county officials say they’re planning to announce such a program in the coming months.

The materials recovery facility (MRF) in Baltimore County. September 7, 2023.
The Materials Recovery Facility in Baltimore County on Sept. 7, 2023. (Krishna Sharma)

In 2021, Baltimore County kept one-third of its waste from being placed into a landfill, largely by transporting trash out of the county through more than 30 contracted trash haulers, and incinerating it in Baltimore City, per a contract with Wheelabrator Baltimore that expires after 2026. But even waste diversion has plummeted over recent years, falling from a 40% diversion rate in 2018, according to state reports.

With Maryland’s restrictions on new municipal landfills, county officials are limited in what they can do next, and press secretary Erica Palmisano said the county isn’t considering its own incinerator. Neither is the county considering hiring more trash haulers, public works said. Remaining options include building the Eastern Sanitary Landfill upward or outward.

Officials say recycling can be lucrative for the county, depending on how much revenue is made from selling baled recyclables in an uncertain market.

Since 2018, the county has spent millions more on recycling operations than what’s been recouped. Only twice has Baltimore County seen a fiscal return on its investment in recycling, according to figures it provided.

Bale sales boomed in 2022, for instance, bumping the county’s general fund by $2.9 million (about one-third of recycling costs that year). But that came after a year when sales brought in just 4.5% of what officials spent that year to operate recycling programs and the Materials Recovery Facility.

This year the county is spending $9.6 million to recycle. As of September, the county has made $1 million from recycling sales, according to the county.

“Recycling markets fluctuate regularly,” public works spokesman Lowell Melser said. “Baltimore County has, at times, earned more than spent while other times the opposite has occurred.”

But materials can be in high-demand one year, and unneeded the next, making “predicting future revenues from recycling” challenging, Melser said.

Regardless, the county “continues to support and expand its commitment to recycling practices,” he said.

Unsold recycled waste is rolled over into next month’s stock of sellable material, Melser said. Officials didn’t answer questions about what happens to recycled waste that’s never purchased.

Inside the materials recovery facility (MRF) in Baltimore County.
Inside the Materials Recovery Facility in Baltimore County. (Krishna Sharma)

Hummel, a stalwart sustainability supporter with years of experience in waste reduction, was hired to oversee recycling last year. Since then, he’s helped solicit contractors to expand recycling, and has submitted proposals for about $4 million in private grants and public funding (not all of which has been approved).

But “if we want to get to that next level then it’s got to come from a place of governance,” Hummel said.

Massachusetts, for instance, banned placing textiles into landfills in 2022. Locally, pay-as-you-throw policies in Aberdeen and Carroll County — programs under which residents bought stickers or special bags based on how many gallons of trash they landfilled — were discontinued. Carroll County’s 2018 pay-as-you-throw pilot program in rural New Windsor reduced the amount of landfill-bound waste and increased recycling rates, but the program was allowed to sunset, according to the county.

There are other ways to improve recycling. Baltimore County could provide recycling toters instead of requiring residents to get their own. It could fund a business recycling program similar to Anne Arundel County’s for commercial recycling pickup. It could expand curbside services to include textiles, electronics and other recyclables, or contract with a company that does so (like Helpsy, according to its website).

But the county is not currently considering such policies, a public works spokesman said, even if they could add a little time before the county’s landfill is full.

“To be cynical about it, this [material recovery facilities] exists just to extend the life of landfills,” Hummel said.

“Less cynically,” he said, “it’s a stewardship of resources.”

Baltimore County still estimates its last landfill will be out of commission by 2027.

Taylor DeVille covered Baltimore County government for The Baltimore Banner with a focus on the County Executive, County Council, accountability and quality of life issues affecting suburban residents. Before joining The Banner, Taylor covered Baltimore County government and breaking news for The Baltimore Sun.

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