THE SIGN HAS BEEN UP for almost a month now and it says, in effect, that the Cherrydale recycling center in Arlington has probably had it. This is not the first time recycling centers in Northern Virginia have been in trouble. Once before, when the Ecocycle recycling firm, a private group, found that the process cost too much money, the city of Alexandria came to the rescue. Alexandria took over recycling in the city and it also took over Ecocycle's Cherrydale center, which is nothing more than a huge multi-compartment wooden bin next to the Cherrydale Safeway store.

There was a time in the early 1970s when everyone, it seemed, cared about the environment. We had Earth Day and we recycled glass and paper and tin cans. Christmas cards became more than mere greetings. They were political statements. You knew where the people stood who sent you cards made with recycled paper and you most certainly knew where the people stood who didn't.

Recycling centers popped up in shopping areas, playgrounds, school and church parking lots. They had carefully written instructions on how to separate your garbage. If you were into recycling, you knew, for example, that steel and aluminum just don't go together, and you wouldn't be caught dead throwing a glass container into the same bin that you had just tossed a tin can into.

You might not know exactly how it was done, but you knew basically that glass was shipped to glass factories to be reused, that steel was hauled to steel mills, that aluminum went to aluminum factories and paper to paper factories. There was the general assumption that the factories made good use of recycling our waste products, that they were saving money since they were able to use secondhand raw materials. That the good of mankind was being served was never in doubt. We were reducing the sum of garbage in a world that was running out of landfill sites.

Then something happened. You would drive into the church lot on Sunday morning and find broken glass scattered around the recycling bin. People with nothing to do on Saturday nights had found a new thrill: trash the recycling center. Smash the glass, dump out the newspapers and set fire to the whole mess. Recycling centers closed. Well-intentioned civic organizations didn't have the time to clean up after the vandalism. They got discouraged and they weren't turning the kind of profit that could make the aggravation worthwhile. Centers became scarce and far apart. It became a chore to get to them. Recycling became inconvenient.

Only a few centers remained in Northern Virginia and they included the Cherrydale facility in Arlington. It was the only place to recycle glass, tin cans an dnewspapers for the Arlington, Falls Church and the north Fairfax area. It had its share of vandalism but it survived. There was never a crowd waiting to get into the parking lot, but there were usually one or two other people methodically dumping their carefully separated trash into the bin. You would nod, say hello, and know that maybe most people couldn't care less about recycling these days, but there were at least a few people who still did.

A few, but probably not enough to really matter. Recycling glass and steel containers doesn't pay anymore around here. In fact, it costs money that local officials don't think local governments are ready to spend in the age of Proposition 13.

"We are continuing in the newspaper business, which is profitable," says Dayton Cook, director of transportation and environmental services for Alexandria. "The glass and metal markets are not good in this area because the users are up in Baltimore and the further you've got to haul these materials the more uneconomical it becomes.

"One of our problems was that the volume is down from what the peak was.There are some people who are very dedicated and do it continuously. The higher the participation the lower your cost and you need high participation when your markets are so terrible."

"The tin cans we used to sell to a detinner in Delaware but he went out of business because of air pollution standards," says Cook. "The tin was what was valuable rather than the steel," in the cans. A lot of tin cans are used in the refining of copper in the Midwest but locally the nearest steel mills are in Baltimore and while they give you a lot of lip service, they don't want the tin cans because of the handling problems."

Alexandria plans to discontinue recycling glass and tin cans by the end of March. It will continue picking up newspapers for recycling, but the Cherrydale facility in Arlington is on its own now.

Arlington County has thought about taking it over as it is and then thought better of it, says Mark Kellogg, a transportation planner with the country's department of public works. "We considered it and have basically some of the same problems Alexandria has. The market for glass and steel cans is very poor right now. Alexandria was taking their glass to Baltimore and being paid $10 a ton and I don't see how you can haul anything that distance for $10 a ton."

Kellogg says the county public works department has recommended to the county that it continue operating the Cherrydale facility for recycling newspapers. The county board is tentatively scheduled to take up the Ecocycle question at its Feb. 24 meeting. The county manager, in recommending that the center stay open for newspaper, estimates that it could turn a profit of $500 a year.

There doesn't seem to be much doubt that recycling as it is done now in Northern Virginia costs money. Alexandria estimated that it was costing the city $13.96 per ton to recycle 4,183 tons and that it cost only $11 a ton to handle garbage in more traditional ways. Initially, the city hoped it could make the Ecocycle centers break even but they never did and now they are costing the city thousands of dollars a year. "We could stand some loss, but in a time of Proposition 13 and tightening money this forthcoming year, when the program was dying on us, we just couldn't justify it," says Cook.

William Hewitt, an Arlington resident who helps design nuclear power plants for the Navy, told a meeting of citizens and county officials in early February that the county should open more centers, not abandon the only one that exists. "I think if it were done on a larger scale it might indeed turn out to be more economical," says Hewitt.

It would be nice to reduce costs, says Hewitt, but there is also what he calls "the grander goal. We ought not to be so much a part of the throw-away society."

Hewitt sees a future in which recycling will be more economically desirable and more vital than it is now when we still enjoy landfill capacity. He sees a future in which his children will have to recycle and, even if it costs money now to teach them how to do it, to keep the technique and the idea alive, it is money well spent on protecting the environment around us.

The idea of recycling was never to make money. The idea was to try to slow down the process of turning the world into a garbage dump, but somewhere along the way, at some point when recycling stopped being a kick and started being work, we lost sight of that idea. Maybe Arlington will preserve the Cherrydale center for newspaper, and that would be very nice. But it's going to feel terribly strange throwing bottles and cans into the kitchen trash can again, after all these years.