As the waste disposal debate rages on, the only irrefutable fact in evidence at this point is that we have a planet-killing problem for which there are no eureka answers.
What we want, to judge from the recycling versus waste-to-energy discussion in City Hall this week, is to be able to throw away what we don’t need and not have it land anywhere.
As it is, we’re pretty much stuck and the Ocean City Council did the only thing it could when it renewed its contract with the Covanta waste-to-energy operation in Pennsylvania.
Here’s why: research reported last year by Columbia University’s Climate School found that a high percentage of the materials deposited in recycling containers end up in the landfill anyway because they are contaminated with food residue, oils and nonrecyclables, or were placed in the wrong bin.
Recycling requires some attention by the person who wants to do the right thing. But all that effort — the washing, rinsing, cleaning and inspection of the materials to be discarded — is for naught if someone else throws a greasy pizza box into the cardboard bin, or plastic grocery bags (they will jam up the sorting process), in the plastics container.
Although the residents of Ocean City might be able to pull off a successful recycling program by themselves, the greater issue is getting the resort’s eight million visitors to commit to the same goal and to cease contaminating the recyclables dropped off by residents who, by the way, would be paying an additional $1.3 million in payroll to get the job done.
How bad is the contamination problem? When the resort had a recycling program, the best estimate was that 10 percent of the refuse and garbage generated was recycled, while 90 percent had to go to the landfill.
At the worst, most studies have concluded that waste-to-energy might be slightly better than landfills in terms of environmental impact, and it certainly means less land ruined.
Until society as a whole becomes dedicated to recycling, there’s not much Ocean City or its residents can do.