Waste Management facility in Jessup

Food scraps from Howard County are sent first to the Annapolis Junction Recycling and Transfer Station before being sent to Delaware. (Photo by Noah Scialom, Patuxent Publishing / January 26, 2012)

Five months ago, Howard County made waves in environmental circles throughout the state when it launched a new food scrap recycling pilot program.

Thousands of homeowners were urged to forgo the garbage disposal and the trash bin, and instead collect their egg shells, coffee grinds and other bits of organic waste in a fresh green container supplied — and emptied — by the county.

Today, the program is enjoying even more attention from an ever-widening audience of admirers. But as a regionally unique program at a time when state and local budgets are being brokered with deficits in mind, it's future is also mired in uncertainty.

"With what's going on in Annapolis and what's going to happen with our budgets, I'm not sure yet," said Howard County Department of Public Works Environmental Services Bureau Chief Evelyn Tomlin on the program's future. "I think we're really going to see a real impact on what we can do."

Submit a Letter to the Editor for the Laurel Leader, Columbia Flier and Howard County Times

According to many in the recycling industry, there has been a recent explosion of interest in food waste recycling in the region, and many eyes are on Howard's early leap into the field.

That jump began with a tiny pilot program in August 2010 and gained more steam in September, when the second, larger pilot began collecting food scraps from about 1,000 homes in Elkridge and Ellicott City, to be turned into compost.

The county's endeavor, common in parts of the country but still without much precedent in Maryland, has sparked interest elsewhere.

A state delegate from Montgomery County, which has expressed interest in following in Howard's footsteps, introduced a successful bill last session requiring the Maryland Department of the Environment to study composting laws and regulations in the state and report back by Jan. 1, 2013.

Meanwhile, the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority is preparing to launch a study of the feasibility of building a local organics and food waste processing facility for its eight regional partners.

And, large-scale commercial operations and local jurisdictions are expressing increased interest in sending their food scraps somewhere other than the dumpster as well.

At the same time, however, financial and logistical hurdles — namely looming state budget pressures and the state forcing forcing a local company to stop accepting the county's scraps — have thrown the future of Howard's own fledgling program into question, to the point that County Executive Ken Ulman doesn't know whether it will be funded in 2013.

What is clear is that whatever happens with Howard's program will likely affect decisions by would-be imitators in coming months and years, industry leaders said.

"I think a lot of it depends on what happens with Howard County," said Jim Marcinko, the Delmarva area recycling operations director for Waste Management, Inc., the national company that handles trash and recycling for many regional jurisdictions and now ships Howard's food scraps out of state.

'Not going to be easy'

When Howard first began its food scrap recycling pilot, it was stepping into unknown territory in the state.

"They've been ahead of the curve," said Amanda Moore, a project manager with Northeast.

The economies of scale that exist when multiple jurisdictional partners come together on a waste project don't exist for composting in Maryland. State of the art food waste recycling facilities, which capture methane gas released from composting materials, create commercially viable compost and generally turn food scraps into a commodity, don't exist here either. Residents would have to be educated on an unknown process and brought into the fold.

But Ulman — fresh off a trip to Seattle and Portland, where food waste recycling is the norm — was enthusiastic.

"Being the first means taking a risk, and going where no one else was going," Ulman said. "And being the pioneer, we know it's not going to be easy. But we also know that this is how you establish an industry and the culture around the acceptance of food waste recycling."

Following the tiny, brief pilot in 2010, the county budgeted $250,000 for the program and expanded it in September to an entire 5,000-household waste zone. About 1,000 households signed on, and each started producing an average of 9.8 pounds of scraps and other compostable materials — like pizza boxes — per week, Tomlin said.