Recently I spent a few days in Ocean City with my sister, who lives there during the summer. After dinner I asked her where to put the recyclable water bottles and was told Ocean City does not recycle. I called the mayor’s office and was told it’s “too expensive.” I cannot believe we have members of Congress pushing to eliminate the use of fossil fuels and we can’t get an ocean town to do the basics. Ocean City restaurants don’t want to give you a straw but they don’t recycle! I wonder how many cities and towns in our area don’t recycle.

Carolyn Wilson, Chevy Chase

According to a 2011 report by the Environmental Protection Agency, about 73 percent of Americans have curbside recycling. The figure is higher in the Northeast: 85 percent.

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That figure does not include Ocean City, which in 2009 decided to end its recycling program.

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“I think the money is certainly a component of it,” Jessica Waters, communications manager for the town, told Answer Man. She said Ocean City saved $1.5 million a year when it eliminated recycling.

But more importantly, Waters said, was that even with recycling, 92 percent of the town’s waste was going into a landfill.

“That was really unacceptable,” Waters said.

The decision was made to instead send Ocean City’s trash to a company called Covanta for use in a waste-to-energy plant. The refuse is trucked to Pennsylvania where it’s burned, heating water, producing steam and activating turbines for a generator. Said Waters: “Now with Covanta, we landfill less than 2 percent of our waste.”

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Of course, that burning trash includes many things that could have been recycled, a fact that irks environmentalists.

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“When you burn recyclables, you have to make more energy to get this virgin material out of the earth,” said Josh Chamberlain, founder of Go Green OC, a grass-roots organization trying to persuade the city to reintroduce recycling.

Chamberlain — a filmmaker who lives in Austin — grew up in Ocean City, where he surfed and fished as a boy. He doesn’t understand why a place that depends on natural beauty isn’t doing more to preserve itself.

“We’re a beach town,” he said. “We’re going to be facing rising sea levels before anybody. We should be doing whatever we can to be green.”

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Ocean City doesn’t have curbside recycling, but there is a recycling drop-off near a Walmart two miles outside of town for residents and visitors sufficiently motivated to drive there. Some tourists take their recyclables with them, like mountaineers packing trash off the slopes of Everest.

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“People are literally driving home with beer bottles in their trunk, they feel so guilty,” Chamberlain said.

That’s a practice with which Chaz Miller of the Maryland Recycling Network, a coalition of recyclers in the state, is familiar.

“My kids sort of accepted it as a price of growing up: bringing the sticky bag home,” said Miller, who has worked on recycling issues for 40 years. “I will say one thing in Ocean City’s defense: People who are at the beach having a good time are lousy recyclers. They’re not there to carefully sort out their recyclables.”

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It’s easiest to get single-family homes to recycle, Miller said. “Apartment buildings are harder and public places are hardest,” he said. “Go to an airport. You’ll see garbage in the recycling bins and recycling in the garbage gins. It’s like we partially have recycling behavior, and we partially don’t.”

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But, Miller said, “I don’t see why the city of Ocean City, especially the permanent residents, wouldn’t be able to recycle perfectly well.”

Part of the problem for communities like Ocean City is that commodity prices for recyclables have dropped, forcing jurisdictions to pay for recycling to be taken away rather than reaping money by selling it.

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Waters, the beach town’s spokeswoman, said: “Our environment is our biggest asset here. We take very seriously making sure we’re taking care of it and being responsible for it. We just use untraditional ways to do that.”

Chamberlain of Go Green OC is unconvinced. The thought of all those beer bottles and plastic cups and cardboard packaging from all those hotels going up in flames in a Pennsylvania incinerator inflames him. He’s working on a plan to introduce composting of organic materials to Ocean City restaurants, followed by cardboard recycling.

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“I don’t want to see my hometown disappear,” he said. “My initiative’s not going to change the climate, but at least it could help slow [change] down.”

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Said Miller: “The positive environmental impact of recycling is clear. It’s an industrial process. It’s not perfect, but it does save on raw material use. It does lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a net win for the environment.”

Tomorrow: Even more on recycling!

Questions, please

Do you have a question about the Washington area? Send it to answerman@washpost.com.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.

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