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Towns sort out their garbage problem. Wilton, N.H. - The payoff from saving and selling trash

At the solid-waste disposal station here, a pile of old drums, paint cans, buckets, junked exhaust systems, and other metal scrap discarded by residents from this southern New Hampshire region is beginning to mount up. It's maybe 15 feet high and about the same diameter at the base. Patricia (``Paddy'' to her friends) Moore appraises it with a practiced eye.

There's about enough of the junk to think about shipping it out, she says. It's destined for Korea.

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While she has no way of knowing, Ms. Moore has to wonder if any of it eventually returns to this corner of New Hampshire. She's thinking in particular of the Korean-made Hyundai autos that have so successfully penetrated the United States market in recent years, but it could be in any one of a dozen other products.

Moore is manager of what is officially known as the Wilton Recycling Center. In fact, it's a solid-waste treatment plant that incinerates what it cannot salvage and ships off the ash for burial elsewhere.

What makes this a noteworthy operation, however, is the amount of trash currently saved and sold - a full 45 percent of the solid waste generated by six towns in the region. That statistic puts it on top of the country's recycling charts. It also brings down the per capita cost of waste disposal in the region to $13.70 a year. That compares with the state average of $35 a person.

The region does have a mandatory source-separation ordinance, which requires homeowners to separate their household waste into several categories. On rare occasions police have returned bags of waste to those recalcitrant homeowners who refused to comply.

Beyond that, however, aggressive marketing of the salvaged materials is vital to recycling success. Municipal recycling centers formed a cooperative marketing group, the New Hampshire Resource Recovery Association, which handles a good portion of the salvaged materials: corrugated cardboard, mixed paper, newspaper, ledger paper, glass, and light iron. For the rest, it's up to the individual recycling center to find the markets.

How did Moore go about it? In the most basic way. ``I began with the Yellow Pages and looked up the buyers of waste materials.'' That's how she found the rag dealer who would buy discarded clothing, and others who would take plastic soda and milk bottles. She also found interested retreaders who take about 10 percent of the tires.

But she also looks for contacts at various professional meetings and seminars. At the annual New England Resource Recovery conference recently, she met a representative from Reynolds Aluminum who could offer her a considerably higher price on the region's waste aluminum - principally foil, baking pans, and beverage cans - than she had been getting previously.

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When a good deal of clean plastic foam fill (packaging material) started coming in, Moore shopped around and found several markets. ``National Cash Register will take all we can get,'' she says.

The contaminated (by US standards) steel scrap that goes to Korea is baled and shipped for the center by a US processor, again discovered in the Yellow Pages. ``The fee we get back for the steel doesn't cover our costs,'' she points out, ``but it's way cheaper than sending it to the landfill.''

A similar arrangement works with tin cans. The aim, says Moore, is to make a profit on sales, ``but we'll accept a loss if it's less than the cost of landfilling.''

Other than paying the telephone bill, the Wilton recycling budget currently does not fund sales promotion. Committing funds to market development is a key to the future of recycling throughout the US, Moore believes. Other keys to successful community recycling, based on her experience, are:

Initial commitment of funds for recycling by the community involved.

The adoption of a law on separating materials. Homeowners who feel that is an imposition need not comply, but then disposing of their own waste becomes a private responsibility and not the town's.

The flexibility to adapt to changing needs and buyers' requirements. For example, when glass manufacturers complained about the quality of the ``cullet'' (crushed glass) coming in, long sorting trays were added in front of the holding bins so that the staff could easily spot and remove contaminants before storage.

Hiring staff dedicated to recycling. The town of Plymouth, N.H., passed a source separation ordinance, but hired an incinerator operator to manage it. Because his interests lay in incineration, recycling quickly became an insignificant part of the program.

Consistent support for recycling by town officials, and, if more than one town is involved, formation of a joint committee that gives each community a voice in policy decisions.

An ongoing, or at least a periodic, public education campaign. ``Ultimately without the support of the public, any solid-waste system will fail,'' Moore says.

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