John Buntin is a GOVERNING staff writer. He covers health care, public safety and urban affairs.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
In the historical Indo-Aryan language of Sanskrit, it's called "samsara"--the cycle of life, death and rebirth. Just outside Baltimore, in Elkridge, Md., it's called recycling--and the Waste Management Recycle America material recovery facility is where it happens.
Trash has always fascinated the most astute observers of human societies. Archaeologists dig it; novelists have long pondered it. In Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens explored how money affects character by tracing the fortunes of rubbish-hauling that descend on Noddy Boffin (a.k.a. the Golden Dustman). In his 1997 novel Underworld, Don DeLillo describes "the sting of enlightenment" felt by one of his characters, a waste management consultant, on his first encounter with the (now shuttered) Fresh Kills landfill on New York's Staten Island.
For DeLillo's character, the question of "how to keep this mass metabolism from overwhelming us" was an existential one. But for the people who operate the Elkridge material recovery facility, it's a technical one. Moreover, it's a problem that has largely been solved.
Elkridge, the largest recycling facility in the world in 2007, can sort 65 tons of recyclable material per hour--enough to keep the Baltimore-Washington area from drowning in milk cartons, newspapers, junk mail, boxboard, and food and beverage containers. High-tech sorting machinery from Holland separates most of the trash that loops around the conveyor belts throughout the facility, but ultimate responsibility--and the final sort--remains the province of people who work there. Hot and loud as it seems to the outsider, the work inspires intense loyalty among the facility's 75 employees.
Although the Elkridge facility itself opened just three years ago, many of the employees have worked at Waste Management for decades, making the apocalyptic end that DeLillo sensed and feared into something new--20,000 tons of recycled materials, shipped out from the Port of Baltimore every month to start anew.