A Woodbine company that had been processing food scraps into composted materials with commercial applications — a process lauded by state and local officials as the next great frontier in recycling — has ceased those operations after hearing concerns about pollution from the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The impact has been far reaching, causing a string of institutions and the Howard County government, which were all sending food scraps to the facility, to find other, out-of-state facilities to handle the material.

Recycled Green Industries, which is still processing yard waste at its Carroll County facility off Kabik Court, received a verbal request to stop its food waste operations from the department on Dec. 22 because it did not have correct permits or processes in place to handle food scraps, according to a department spokesman.

Food scraps present different environmental concerns than yard waste, the spokesman said.

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Namely, food contains "nutrients and potential pathogens" not found in yard waste, and are harmful to the environment when washed into surface and ground water, said Jay Apperson, the spokesman, in an email.

The department followed its verbal request with a letter to the company Jan. 9 that outlined concerns and gave a 12-point plan for the company to mitigate problems and become properly permitted.

The letter said water samples taken by the department on or near the company's property "confirm that the operation is generating polluted leachate and storm water and is discharging pollutants without a permit in violation of state law."

The letter also said, "In addition to the nutrients and bacteria found through laboratory analysis of samples collected from the site, elevated levels of biochemical oxygen demand and low dissolved oxygen were also detected, indicating the presence of excessive organic pollutants in discharges from the site."

Current guidelines on composting practices in the state recommend composting operations be "containerized, or operated in a manner to prevent ground or surface water contamination."

According to Mike Toole, Recycling Green's business development manager, the company's food scrap operations, which began two years ago, were outside, and consisted of mixing the food scraps into large mounds of yard waste, at the ratio of one part food scraps per every 30 parts of yard waste.

After processing, the material was sold as a natural fertilizer. The company also creates mulches and other ground covers.

The company has always passed inspections by the environmental department's land management administration, and was unaware its composting process was not permitted correctly and did not meet requirements.

Officials of MDE's water management administration first visited the company's facility last summer, Toole said.

When told of the pollution concerns, the company "voluntarily ceased accepting food waste," he said.

Too costly to continue

Apperson said the company needs to obtain a permit that's in line with National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System protocols, as well as a state groundwater discharge permit and an air permit to run its concrete crusher.

The company may also need a mining permit, depending on the level of excavation intended for the property.

The department also spelled out steps the company would have to take to compost food materials, including installing a "low-permeability pad" or other surface, such as concrete, below the entire operation.

Until last week, Toole said the company was working to determine how to comply with the department's demands, but has since determined it'll be too costly to continue.

"We will have no choice but to abandon plans to re-engage in food waste recycling," he said.