For America Recycles Day, Howard County is moving a step beyond your average blue bin. County Executive Ken Ulman spent Friday morning passing out a new kind of bin to residents of the Clarks Glen neighborhood in Clarksville. Instead of blue, it's green – and rather than collecting bottles and cans, participants fill it up with food scraps.
The county is expanding its composting program to Clarks Glen and other neighborhoods in Clarksville and parts of Columbia, where of about 3,800 households, some 1,200 requested the free green bin.
Ulman said composting was the next step in moving the county toward its zero-waste goal.
"We have an incredibly high recycling rate, we've driven the waste stream down dramatically, but we know in order to make additional progress it's got to be about composting," he said.
He pointed to West Coast communities, such as Seattle, Portland and Northern California's Bay Area that already have established composting programs.
"All around the West Coast it's expected," he said. "We have families move to Howard County from the West Coast and they say where's my compost bin?"
Clarks Glen resident Elaine Masker didn't come to Howard County from across the country, but when she moved to Gaithersburg from New Jersey 24 years ago, she was shocked to find that there wasn't any recycling in her town at all.
To her husband's dismay, she stored bags of recyclables in the trunk of her car so that she could properly dispose of them during the half-dozen annual trips she took back to the Garden State.
Masker moved to Clarks Glen a dozen years ago and says in a typical week her household produces more recycling than trash. A gardener, she has already been setting aside food scraps like banana peels, eggshells and coffee grounds, to enrich her soil.
"The stuff that I don't use in my garden, I would love to get it out to someone else," she said. "It's a win, win, win."
County waste workers provide free curbside pick-up in participating areas every week. The compost is then taken to Alpha Ridge Landfill in Marriottsville – which opened its composting center in April – where it's treated and left to decompose. The final product is a nutrient-rich soil that the county sells to local gardeners.
The composting program started as a pilot in Elkridge in 2011. Two years later, the county is collecting about 100 tons of food scraps a year from more than 1,000 participating households, according to county recycling chief Alan Wilcom.
The program's expansion to the Clarksville and Columbia region would bring that number to about 2,200 households.
Wilcom said the new composting collection route was chosen because it was a route that already had high participation numbers in the county's recycling program.
County Council member Mary Kay Sigaty, who represents Clarks Glen, said she was "thrilled" the program was coming to her district.
Sigaty spent a day knocking on doors in Clarks Glen with her interns to spread word about the program.
"I do believe in this project," she said. "It's essential for us to do it." And she added, "It will be our youth carrying it forward."
Ulman said he had designated his 8-year-old daughter Lily as his family's "composting captain."
The executive said he hoped to bring composting to the entire county.
"This has been a long time coming," he said. "We stated an internal goal early in our administration to get to zero waste… There's no reason why we can't [compost] in Maryland. We're showing that you can make progress here in Howard County."
For more information about the composting program, the county has set up a website at http://www.FeedTheGreenBin.org.