Will Howard's food scrap program draw partners to the table or go down the drain?

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."

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.

Household waste among participants dropped by about 25 percent, Tomlin said, and the county has diverted more than 175,000 pounds of material from the trash heap.

For months, the county shipped thousands of pounds of food scraps to a company called Recycled Green Industries, just over the Carroll County line in Woodbine, which was also accepting scraps from a growing list of local institutions, including the University of Maryland, College Park and the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

Then in December, MDE said Recycled Green's operation was polluting the environment, wasn't properly permitted to compost food materials and lacked essential controls for preventing ground and surface water contamination, and had the company shut down its food scrap collection.

The county is now sending its food scraps to a facility in Delaware.

The shift to transporting the food scraps out of state further complicated the county's program, and its ability to inspire growth in the food waste recycling industry locally, Ulman said.

"I don't think that's the right long-term solution, because as far as the environment impact, trucking it all the way to Delaware is not the way we want to be stewards of the environment," he said. "But it's going to take a cultural shift of embracing food scraps and composting for there to be a local facility that is created."

The shift didn't have an immediate or drastic financial impact on the program, which to date has cost the county about $42,000, most of it spent on purchasing the food scrap carts distributed to participating residents, Tomlin said. Maintaining the program's collection through February and March will cost the county an additional $12,000, she said.

That's under budget, in part because only 20 percent of eligible households participated in the pilot.

Still, the program's budget remains its largest vulnerability, Ulman said.

Watching the numbers

With Gov.Martin O'Malleylooking to close a state deficit for fiscal year 2013, in part by shifting costs to the counties, it remains to be seen what kind of funding the county will have for the food scrap program, officials said.

Ulman said the project could be cut, expanded, or kept in pilot form, with the last option being the most likely.

"I've been watching very closely to see the numbers, and I would say I'm encouraged so far, but I still want to see more numbers before we decide to expand," he said.

If other localities don't enter into the mix, Howard's pushing ahead alone would be all the more difficult, he said.

"We ought to be able to do it here, but it means having a support structure to be able to service the needs," he said.

The county's best bet may be to work closely with Northeast, which Moore said will be conducting a feasibility study this spring to gauge local interest and potential funding commitments from local jurisdictions, measure what the likely scope of a regional food waste recycling program would be, and look at the type of facility that would be needed.

"There's definitely a need and a want," Moore said.

If a project is feasible, Northeast could roll into a procurement phase as early as this fall, Moore said.

Meanwhile, Montgomery County Del. Heather Mizeur's bill last session requires MDE to report back to the legislature on the state's composting laws and regulations by Jan. 1, 2013. Mizeur said she is hoping the report will help cut through some of the red tape restricting local business leaders' foray into composting.

"Composting is a win-win-win for any community, and I think the Howard County example is showing that. But we don't want to stop there. We need to make Maryland the nation's composting leader," Mizeur said. "As I like to say, trash is the past."

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