By Bryan Sears
And, my, has it come a long way.
Fifteen years ago, the county's recycling effort consisted of a couple of containers on a corner of the Ravenwood Shopping Center parking lot in Towson.
Enter Charlie Reighart.
At the time, the Loch Raven Village resident was a litigator for Venable, the prestigious Baltimore law firm with offices in Washington and Towson.
A Yale Law School graduate, Reighart admits to enjoying working with people and loving "a good cause."
When a friend approached him in 1989 about starting a recycling program in Loch Raven Village, he had both.
On the first Saturday of the Loch Raven program in the summer of 1990, 600 cars were waiting to drop off recyclable paper, plastic and aluminum into the containers that Reighart and about a dozen residents had arranged to have placed on the shopping center parking lot, Reighart recalls.
Within a few weeks, the all-volunteer program grew so large that it had to be moved to a bigger parking lot on Joppa Road across from what is now Radio Park.
In the fall of 1990, Reighart was asked to head the newly created county recycling program.
Leaving the potentially lucrative world of corporate law, he was offered $32,000 to become the county's recycling and waste prevention manager.
He accepted - the job now pays $56,000.
"What I have here is a perpetual campaign for a good cause," he said.
And the cause is succeeding.
The Maryland Department of the Environment calculates that the county program and private companies collected 456,265 tons of recyclable materials in 2004 - surpassing all other Maryland jurisdictions even though the county ranks third in total population.
Reighart attributes the success of the county's recycling program to the one-and-one pickup schedule, begun in 1993, in which garbage and recyclables each are picked up once a week.
Nearly five years after the start of the one-and-one schedule, the Towson-Parkville program and a handful of other community programs Reighart helped create gradually closed as the county's curbside recycling gained momentum.
Since the one-and-one pickup program began a decade ago, the county's overall recycling rate has grown from 16 percent in 1990 to nearly 41 percent in 2004 - meaning county residents and businesses recycle 40 pounds of glass, plastic and paper out of every 100 pounds of trash thrown out. The effort helps save energy and landfill space.
The state recycling requirement for the county is 20 percent. If not met, the state could prevent the county from issuing building permits. That has not happened in any jurisdiction, Reighart says.
Melissa Groves, a Towson resident, said if the county did not pick up her recycling she "wouldn't be doing nearly as much."
Three years ago, Groves was living in a Cromwell Valley apartment and driving her own recycling to a collection center once a month - a 16-mile round trip.
At that time, she dropped off just aluminum and glass, and even then she didn't recycle everything because of lack of storage and concern that it might attract pests.
"If I had to drive out, and it were inconvenient to drive out, I probably wouldn't be washing my mayonnaise jars out," Groves said. "There's only a certain amount of time I am willing to devote to recycling."
About 235,000 single-family homes - representing 70 percent of the county's total - spread over 640 square miles are part of the voluntary program.
Today, 48 collectors pick up recycling from those homes each week on 225 separate schedules that cover an average of 1,000 homes.
While the county does not tally totals for individual routes, Rob Singleton, chief operating officer for Stevenson-based Cockey's Enterprises, gives high marks to the northwest Baltimore County route that stretches from the city line to Tufton Avenue, winding through the upscale Caves Valley.
"This whole route has a very high participation rate," said Singleton on a recent pickup day while watching workers throw bags into one of two dark-green collection trucks working the route.
Indeed, there are piles of blue bags holding plastic and glass containers at the end of nearly every driveway.
Singleton said collectors aren't picky about bag color "as long as we can tell it's recyclable."
Inevitably, all recycling makes its way through the county's Resource Recovery Facility, just north of Cockeysville off Interstate 83 in Texas, Md.
There, the products are separated, and the plastics and aluminum products are compacted into bales weighing 300 to 400 pounds. Those are shipped to companies that reuse the materials.
"It's a fairly simple system," said Richard Keller, manager for recycling for the Maryland Environmental Service, a quasi-state agency that manages and operates the county-owned recycling facility. "Plastics are hand sorted. Metals and tins are separated by a machine."
From Cockeysville, the paper goes to paper mills throughout the Mid-Atlantic, where it is turned into newsprint, corrugated containers and roofing tiles.
In all, the county generates about $2 million annually from the sale of its recyclable materials. That money is used to help pay for county trash collections.
"To us, this is a business," Keller said.
But not everything the county collects can be sold.
One example is visible to those who drive past the Texas facility.
A mountain of glass longer than two football fields and weighing more than 40 million pounds is the result of a glass market that collapsed in March 2001.
Still, the county continued to collect the glass, according to Mary Roper, chief of the county Bureau of Solid Waste Management.
"We didn't want to landfill it, so we held it," Roper said.
Earlier this year, the county purchased a machine that pulverizes the containers to their base component - sand.
The sand is then used for roadbeds and for laying underground pipes. Even so, officials said it will be some time before the glass mountain disappears.
Chances are the plastic containers that are picked up today could well end up back in a Baltimore-area home or business as part of a new container.
Each year, the York, Pa.-based Graham Recycling Co. facility receives 50 million pounds of used plastic material from areas along the East Coast, including Baltimore County. From that, the company returns about 42 million pounds to the market in the form of detergent, motor oil and beverage containers.
"We send about 45,000 pounds back to Baltimore five days a week," said Robin Marshall, Graham's plant manager.
The plastic is separated by color, washed and then ground into a flake-like material. The flake is later melted and turned into a taffy-like consistency.
From there, it's pushed through screens into long, spaghetti-like pieces and cut into pellets.
Those pellets are later melted and turned into new bottles.
And those bottles likely end up back on shelves of stores, kitchen pantries and laundry rooms in Baltimore County.
The sight of those blue, green and orange bottles makes it all worthwhile for Reighart, who is awaiting the release of the county's new, 10- year solid-waste management plan, which is expected to set new goals for the county recycling plan.
"My world completely changed in a year," Reighart said, referring to the parking-lot collections of 1990. "It was just so captivating to be in the middle of this."
In the middle, on top and underneath, say some, such as Wayne Skinner, a former County Councilman and former member of the board of the Associates of Loch Raven Village, who calls Reighart the father of county recycling.
"You hear Yale Law degree, and you think he'd be doing corporate law somewhere," Skinner said. "But here he is, separating bottles and cans," Skinner said.