Getting greener: Howard expands recycling to help achieve environmental goals

Kate Magill
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

A neighborhood’s worth of discarded computers, mattresses and refrigerators dot the Alpha Ridge Landfill, a ghost town of household appliances.

It’s not until you drive to the back of the county’s 550-acre property in Marriottsville that you find some of the most exciting — and smelly— activity. It’s here that the county does its composting, working to churn food and yard waste into compost, mulch and topsoil.

The three-quarters-acre facility diverts about 4,000 tons of organic material from the landfill each year most of which is brought to the facility by three truck deliveries a day. The trucks pick up food scraps, leaves and tree branches from roughly 15,000 households across three of its curb collection routes, according to Alan Wilcom, chief of the county’s recycling division.

The heaps of banana peels, bread and other food must sit for 45 days to become compost, before it’s taken to a curing site to cool for another 30 days and get tested for harmful bacteria, according to Keith Winkles, a landfill equipment operator.

Once ready, the mulch, topsoil and compost that’s produced is used by county departments and is sold to residents and businesses by the cubic yard.

The county is in the process of doubling the size of the composting operation as part of a broader goal to keep 60 percent of the county’s waste from ending up in the landfill by the next decade.

The expanded operation, scheduled to open in October, will allow the county to divert up to 8,000 tons of waste. The work being done by the county’s Office of Community Sustainability and the Department of Public Works’ Bureau of Environmental Services, which houses the recycling division, are on display this month as the county prepares for GreenFest, a Saturday event coinciding with Earth Day on April 22.

Less is more

A quarter of all trash that ends up in landfills could be diverted, according to Mark DeLuca, chief of the Bureau of Environmental Services.

The expansion of the compost facility, DeLuca said, will help put a major dent in that number. With an estimated capital cost of $4.2 million, the project is a “low hanging fruit,” DeLuca said, because it will help the county save money by limiting the amount of trash that must be sent by rail to a landfill in King George County, Virginia.

Residents generate approximately 105,000 tons of trash a year, according to DeLuca, nearly all of which is sent to the Virginia landfill at a cost of $4.8 million per year. By diverting more of that waste, he said it will help the county save money on how much trash must be sent offsite.

Curbside organic trash collection launched in 2012 and established routes cover Clarksville, Elkridge and Columbia, Wilcom said. Residents can receive bins for the food scraps free of charge, but must request them to participate.

After the expansion, Wilcom said the county will be able to serve six or seven routes, though the department has yet to decide the routes.

When the program began, Wilcom said about 20 percent of residents living on the routes set out their food scraps for delivery; today he said the percentage is about the same, but will soon be part of a much larger whole.

Why don’t more residents participate? The “yuck factor.”

To combat the inevitable stench of slowly rotting food that is saved before it can be collected weekly, Wilcom suggested residents add items to the bin that can soak up the food’s moisture, and therefore smell, such as shredded paper, cardboard or pizza boxes.

“The key to everything is convenience,” Wilcom said of getting more residents to participate in food scrap collection. “You have to make it as simple as possible.”

Howard’s organic collection push is part of its strategy to meet a voluntary state goal to divert at least 60 percent of counties’ solid waste away from landfills by 2020, either through reuse, reduction of waste or recycling. The county currently diverts roughly half of its solid waste away from the landfill, placing it ninth in Maryland, according to state data. Prince George’s County ranks first, with a 60.61 percent diversion rate.

In its 10-year, 2014 Solid Waste Management Plan, the county included a goal to reach a 75 percent diversion rate by 2030, but DeLuca admits that goal is lofty.

To help reach the 2020 goal, DeLuca said the department is launching an education campaign on what material can be recycled. “Know Before You Throw” will help residents learn some key recycling know-hows, including not to recycle light bulbs, plastic foam containers or propane canisters. Wilcom said the department is also hoping to bring more businesses into the fold, including getting them to voluntarily report to the county the amount they recycle, to give the county a more accurate idea of how much waste is being diverted.

“If we could reduce the percentage going to the landfill by 25 percent that would be huge for us, that would definitely move the needle,” DeLuca said.

Recycling innovation

Education is also at the heart of the work of the Office of Community Sustainability, celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Director Jim Caldwell said the department is in the midst of launching advanced outreach and education programs to help residents better understand everything from the importance of reusable grocery bags to why they should help protect the county’s recently established Green Infrastructure Network, a map of the area’s most coveted natural landscapes.

A focus on outreach is an alternative to implementing county regulations akin to what surrounding localities have done. Montgomery County and Washington, D.C. have 5-cent charges on plastic bags in stores and in March, the Baltimore City Council passed a ban on Styrofoam containers in restaurants.

Rather than work to pass such policies, Caldwell said he’s focused on showing people why making those choices on their own is beneficial.

“All these programs are education programs to try to get people to understand, so we don’t have to regulate,” Caldwell said.

While County Executive Allan Kittleman said he’s not considering proposing any plastic foam or plastic bag regulations, Sierra Club Howard County executive committee member Carolyn Parsa, who also serves on the county’s Environmental Sustainability Board, said it’s time for new policies.

The Sierra Club, in conjunction with the progressive group IndivisibleHoCoMD, is planning to submit a proposition to the County Council to implement a bag fee, Parsa said. The group is waiting until the council’s new members take office to bring forward the initiative sometime this coming winter.

“As soon you put in a fee, it’s amazing how quickly people don’t want to pay that and bring their own bags,” she said. “So yeah, I think it is time to put something down that’s more comprehensive and it’ll initiate change and have an impact.”

The other major development in the Office of Community Sustainability is the addition of a director of energy, a first for the county. The director will focus on researching and implementing best practices to reduce the county’s carbon footprint and increase its renewable energy use, Caldwell said.

By bringing on a full-time energy expert, Caldwell said the department will be able to work towards meeting more of these goals. The department laid out seven energy benchmarks with 2020 deadlines in a 2015 Climate Action Plan, but Caldwell said that without a designated energy expert, the county’s been in a “holding pattern” and that not as much progress on the goals has been made recently.

Applications for the position were open this month and Caldwell said he hopes to bring on the energy director later this spring, who will help push the county to the next level on sustainability. One of the director’s first tasks will be to assess the county’s energy use and update its climate action plan.

“I’m very excited,” Caldwell said. “The one thing in my career that I’ve always tried to do is be really innovative, and I’m very excited to continue that push, we want to be on the leading edge.”

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