OCEAN CITY — When it came to dropping the town’s recycling program, saving the money was the easy part for town officials. It’s trying to save face that is proving to be another story.
Town officials have been taking some heat for their recent decision to halt the town’s recycling program in favor of burning the recyclables along with the rest of the town’s trash to create clean, renewable energy.
City Public Works Deputy Director Dick Malone volunteered to field the public backlash personally and he said that although he knows he won’t be able to convince everyone of the town’s intentions, he hopes to dispel any accusations of the town “abandoning the environment” with the change.
“We’ve been getting calls, emails and even had people come into the office personally to let me know that they are angry with this change,” said Malone. “A lot of it is perception, as they don’t understand why we made this decision, so many of them leave the office with a better understanding even though they may not agree with it. The biggest thing I’m trying to convey is that we would never make a decision in Ocean City that would totally abandon environmental concerns, since the environment is such a huge part of our industry here.”
Last week’s decision to shut down the town’s recycling program at the end of the month, and essentially outsource the job to Chester, Pa.-based Covanta, who also hauls and incinerates the Ocean City’s 32,000 tons of trash annually, results in a savings of $1 million for the upcoming fiscal year and will dissolve nine year-round jobs.
However, there has been a not-so-subtle murmuring throughout the resort that the town’s essential million-dollar decision was done purely for financial reasons and comes at the expense of the planet, as citizens have expressed concern that in a time when a lot of municipalities across the country are expanding the scope of their recycling programs, Ocean City elected to stop its completely.
“It’s an evolution of where recycling is going,” said Councilwoman Margaret Pillas. “Recycling has evolved over the last 20 years, and turning trash into clean renewable energy is the best way that I’ve seen to do it. I didn’t understand it at first either, but I think we made the right decision.”
City Manager Dennis Dare told The Dispatch last week that “bold initiatives are needed to make a difference in operating costs” but there seems to be a growing number of people who think that the move to essentially halt Ocean City’s most well known “green” program was a bit too bold.
“Some of the calls I’ve been getting are negative to the point of nasty,” said Malone. “I even got a call from someone that I hadn’t spoken to in 25 years, who told me that he was mad as hell at me for pushing for this. Yes, on one hand it’s a million dollars the town is saving, but on the other hand, we are re-purposing our waste into something very useful and, let’s face it, this country needs more clean and renewable energy.”
Mayor Rick Meehan supports the change and says that getting the public to understand the town’s intentions comes down to getting the message out that the environment is on the town’s essential top five list.
“I expected there to be a bit of a backlash because this is a change, and we’ve been educated for years to recycle in a certain way and we felt good about doing it,” said Meehan. “If you look at the philosophy of what we are now doing in turning waste into energy, it is still a very good thing for the environment, and those dollars that we save are going to be put to very good use in Ocean City.”
It’s obvious to even the most critical of the decision that it was heavily determined by the million dollar savings, which essentially equates to a penny on the tax rate, but despite the town’s financial woes, Malone argues that this move will actually be creating more with the town’s waste than the now defunct recycling program.
“We were recycling about 10-12 percent of our waste, which probably included about 3-4 percent of that being metals and aluminum basically [Covanta] is now going to be doing the sorting themselves at their plant in Chester and they are going to be getting energy from about 70 percent of our waste through the re-purposing process,” Malone said. “Any way you look at it, 70 percent has got to be better than just 10-12 percent.”
Still, there are some local environmental and conservation groups skeptical of the change.
“[The Maryland Coastal Bays] are not for or against this but we are aware that the nature of the recycling is different since it’ll be converted to energy rather than consumer goods,” said Dave Wilson, executive director of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. “This kind of incineration burns less CO2 and does not require extraction from mountains, oceans, or tundra, but we will continue to work with Ocean City businesses to find ways to conserve energy in the town and lessen consumption.”
Many throughout the city, including Dare and Malone, point to the huge strides that European and Pacific Rim countries have made in generating trash into electricity, and they note that this move, albeit a small one, is leaning closer to where the recycling industry might be headed as opposed to where it’s been.
“We know we aren’t going to make everyone happy and we have to have trade-offs,” said Malone. “We are just as concerned with doing what’s right for the environment as we are trying to balance our financial needs in Ocean City. Believe me, this was a really hard decision, but a million dollars is a million dollars, and in this economy, how do you tell the taxpayers that we are going to choose to pass that up?”