Arguing that the good shopper inspects the merchandise before buying, about 20 area legislators and bureaucrats plan to fly to Europe March 23 at taxpayers' expense for a look at the continent' latest trash disposal technology.
High-cost plants to reclaim energy from refuse are on the drawing boards in the District and Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax counties. The trip's organizers predict that much of the necessary equipment will be purchased in western Europe, which they say is 20 years ahead of the United States in this field.
"European technologies have to be considered because a lot of them are considerably more advanced than those in this country," said George Stryker, administrator for the District's Water Resources Mangement Administration, who will represent the District on the trip.
Coping with the mountain of plastic bags, cans and ice cream cartons generated daily by Washington-area households has emerged in the past decade as one of the major problems facing area legislators.
The problem demands more than a technical solution: neighborhoods once apathetic have organized overnight when word has leaked that lawmakers want to place a landfill (as today's garbage dumps are called), sludge plant or trash furnace close to residents' homes.
Stryker says it's important for the District and surrounding areas to "be of a common mind" regarding strategy for dealing with these problems, because they are of a regional nature. For example, the District does not have the facilities to treat all its sludge, so much of the waste has be to transported to outlying areas for treatment.
The District has hired a consulting firm to conduct a major study of possible means for disposing of sludge and solid waste. Some jurisdictions are moving ahead even more quickly. Later this year, the Montgomery County Council will be asked to rule on a $150- to $200-million trash-fired power plant, proposed for completion by 1987 near the intersection of Shady Grove Road and Rte. 355.
Together with the giant landfill at Laytonsville -- work is proceeding there despite lawsuits and protests by citizens groups -- the resource recovery plant is intended to offer some long-term relief from the effluents of affluence.
Sales teams from plant manufacturing firms have been calling at local offices in recent months. But Montgomery council member Neal Potter argues that legislators need firsthand exposure: "To see the plants, to see the stack, to smell it, to hear the noise . . . the things that might not appear in the four-color pictures and the salesmen's talks." Council members have already visited three plants in the United States. But none had the air pollution "scrubbers" and landscaped aesthetic appeal that area officials are looking for. Those plants are found in Europe, planners say.
Officials say they are also anxious to see how a mammoth furnace and generator can be built next door to a residential community without seriously harming the quality of life.
The trip will cost about $3,500 per person, officials say. Representatives include at least one from the District government, three from the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, one from Pepco, one from the Fairfax County government, eight from the Montgomery County and three from the Prince George's County governments and one from the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
There has been some criticism that the trip is a junket, but Stryker says it will enable area administrators and legislators to learn about the technology they may be using in the next five to 10 years.
"Going to Europe is not one of the greatest things I look forward to," Stryker added wryly, saying that a trip of this types involves a great deal of work.
He added that it also will provide area representatives with an opportunity to get new ideas about trash disposal.
Stryker says Europeans have a different outlook about what to do with sludge and trash. "They have treated it as an asset," recycling it for energy, "whereas we have treated it as a waste product," he said.
"Our attitude is to dispose of it; in Europe they try to do something with it," he said.
Other officials appear to be sensitive to charges of "junketeering" and wasted tax dollars. Montgomery council President Ruth Spector has pointed out that "even if all seven council members were to take this trip, the cost . . . would represent only a little over one-hundredth of one percent of the total cost of the facility itself."
As for staying home, Spector said, "I would compare it to buying a $150-million car or house and never going to look at it beforehand."
Council member Rose Crenca, however, says she will not go, citing insufficient time to prepare. Moreover, it would disrupt her work on the county budget. "I would feel I would have wasted taxpayers' money," she says.
No final agenda has been set, but tour organizers say they plan intensive briefings and tours at two plants per day for five days. Most would be in West Germany, with a possibility of visits to plants in France and Switzerland as well.
Delegation members would be free to take spouses and stay on in Europe after the tour was over, provided they covered the extra cost themselves.
Two years ago a delegation of area legislators toured European sludge treatment plants. Council member Potter, a member of that group, recalls that the sites and interviews with plant managers and nearby residents convinced the group that a "silo" sludge plant would be suitable for Prince George's County. However, political opposition in the county has slowed efforts to construct that plant.