The county is asking almost 5,000 Elkridge and Ellicott City residents this month to participate in the recycling program, which will begin in September and turn more than 20 percent of landfill waste into compost, reducing disposal costs.
The county will provide residents with a 35-gallon container that will be collected once a week, the same day as yard waste. The food scraps will be taken to Recycled Green in Woodbine, where they will be composted and sold as a soil nutrient.
Local officials hope to extend food-scrap recycling countywide by next year. Several municipalities on the West Coast, including San Francisco and Seattle, have similar collections in place, but the practice has not caught on in the eastern U.S.
County Executive Ken Ulman, who recently traveled to Seattle and Portland, Ore., said that in those cities, "it's become accepted and expected, but for some reason not on the East Coast." He noted that many restaurants have a separate waste bin for food scraps.
"I see no reason it won't catch on in Howard County. It's just changing your habits," he said.
County officials said the program will cost less than trash disposal, especially after the current trash disposal contract expires in two years.
Howard's contract with Waste Management Inc., a large, private trash hauler that ships the county's garbage to a private landfill in Northern Virginia, will expire in 2013. A new contract will likely mean much higher trash disposal costs.
"We've been looking at alternatives," Ulman said. "We knew this date was looming."
The county now pays about $37 a ton for trash disposal, but that contract price could jump to about $55 a ton, based on what nearby counties are paying under newer contracts. That will mean the county's 15-year-old trash fee, now $225 a year for most people, will rise, perhaps as soon as July 2012.
County officials distributed fliers encouraging residents to participate, and within two weeks more than 500 agreed to recycle their food scraps.
Robyn Page, 37, who participated in a smaller food-scrap recycling project last year, said, "It's really just a small lifestyle change. You're going to throw it out anyway. If you just get people in that mindset, it's really easy."
She was one of about 30 Ellicott City residents who participated in a six-month pilot project last year. She noticed the program was particularly useful in the winter, when her family was reluctant to hike out back to the compost heap in the cold.
"What was really exciting for us was that we reduce our trash to one tiny bag a week — to see how much our food scraps continue to do that. I hope it works across the county," Page said.
Nationwide, however, less than 3 percent of the 34 million tons of food waste generated each year is recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Food waste makes up about 14 percent of the nation's trash and is second only to paper, which is far more commonly recycled.
Commercial food-scrap recycling has gained traction on a small scale in nearby Washington, but there are not many options for residential pickup on the East Coast, said Heeral Bhalala, a research associate with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a public policy think tank. Some restaurants and grocery stores in that city dispose of food waste through private contractors such as the "Compost Cab" run by Jeremy Brosowsky.
Bhalala said one of the challenges for municipalities in starting such programs is to create routes, which can take additional trucks and personnel. It's also important to educate people on what can be recycled.
"People will just throw it all in. With food waste it gets even more complicated. The education needs to be out there," Bhalala said.
However, she said "it is doable. San Francisco did it."
Another issue, she said, is the availability of large-scale composting facilities to process food scraps. In 2009, the Peninsula Compost Group opened a facility to compost up to 160,000 tons of material per year in Wilmington, Del., with others in the planning stages.
"People are noticing waste is an issue." Bhalala said. Composting food waste is "a concept we've known but have never done."
In addition to food, the new collection in Howard will take used paper towels, soiled food boxes, chopsticks, coffee filters — items that, when contaminated by food, cannot otherwise be recycled.
Meats, fish, dairy products, diapers, Styrofoam and plastic products are among the items not permitted in the new collection. The meat and dairy products increase odors, attract animals and do not decompose as easily, Tomlin said.
She hopes the new program will discourage residents from putting food scraps in the garbage disposal. It costs about 10 times more to remove it from water at the wastewater treatment plant.
Lynn Brown, a spokeswoman with Waste Management Recycle America, said recycling efforts start with those who produce the waste.
"You count on the people who are creating the waste" to recycle, she said, adding that making it easier for people will increase recycling. When the company introduced single-stream programs, recycling increased by 50 percent, she said.
Waste Management, which serves Howard County and municipalities across the country, also operates one of the largest plastic, metal and paper recycling facilities in the world in Elkridge. The "big bad boy," as Brown called it, sorts recyclables to sell to individual material markets.
Howard residents already recycle about 43 percent of their trash, double the minimum state standard. That earns the county $25 to $50 a ton for paper and aluminum can recyclables, worth an estimated $800,000 to $1 million in the last fiscal year.
Besides promoting recycling efforts to avoid expensive waste removal costs, county officials hope to preserve space in the county's Alpha Ridge Landfill in Marriottsville, which is about 40 percent full.
County officials do not want to fill it with residential waste after the contract with the Virginia landfill expires. When Alpha Ridge reaches capacity, the county would have to spend $11 million to safely close or cap it, and another $2 million to create a new cell for trash.
"It's worthwhile. I recycle. I don't see what the problem is with going the extra step," said retired Howard County Fire Department Chief Deputy Raymond Faith. At a recent informational meeting at the Elkridge Library, he said he plans to participate in the pilot program.
He already has three compost piles, he said, "but this will take care of some of the other things we throw away."
One drawback, however, is that the program adds another can, he said.
"I think it's a great idea. It's innovative," Tonya Clark of Elkridge said at the informational meeting.
But she thought it might be impractical at her townhouse development, where all waste containers must be kept in the back of the house. Keeping the container clean also could be an issue, she said.
Several residents have raised questions about smell, but Tomlin noted that the items that would go into the food-scrap recycling would otherwise just go into the trash. She suggested layering the food waste with pizza boxes or other soiled paper waste or yard waste, to help prevent a lingering odor.
Page, who participated in the earlier pilot program, said she did not have problems with animals or smell. And although she already does some food-scrap recycling with her compost bin, she liked the county service because she could add different types of waste that normally could not be recycled, such as pizza boxes.
"We thought that was a great add-on to what we already do," she said.