State agency to compost food scraps

Talk about leading by example -- the Maryland Department of the Environment announced Monday that it would begin collecting food scraps at its Baltimore headquarters for composting.

The Earth Day announcement comes on the heels of Howard County launching its own food-scrap processing facility, which I covered here for The Baltimore Sun.

MDE will give its 900-plus employees the option to compost their uneaten food at the agency's main offices in Montgomery Park. Officials there say they hope in the effort's inaugural year to divert more than 6 tons of waste that might otherwise have gone to an incinerator or landfill.

"If we want to change citizens’ actions, we need to lead by example," Environment Secretary Robert M. Summers said in a statement accompanying the announcement.  He called composting "the next frontier in recycling."

Though practiced in a number of backyards, food composting trails the recycling rates for many other materials. But state officials say the practice is catching on amid growing recognition of its environmental benefits. While only about 5 percent of food scraps were composted in 2010, agency officials estimate 13 percent is being recycled in Maryland to improve soil for gardens and other landscaping.

Nationally, only about 3 percent of food gets composted, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Commercial food composting operations have run into odor and water pollution problems, though, which has slowed their development. Maryland lawmakers passed legislation this year directing MDE to draw up regulations on food composting aimed at minimizing those issues, which proponents hope can remove some of the uncertainty hanging over acceptability of the practice.

Summers said he hoped MDE's embrace of composting would spur other state agencies, businesses and residents to follow suit. The department generates 53 tons of waste annually at its headquarters and hopes composting will reduce that by 11 percent.

MDE spokeswoman Samantha Kappalman said the agency's move came after a pilot program in which a small group of employees voluntarily collected their food scraps and took them to a garden in the city for composting.

For the agencywide effort, MDE has contracted with Waste Management Inc. to collect food scraps from Montgomery Park. Kappalman said the material would be taken to a large-scale commercial composting facility in Delaware -- Maryland lacks one that size.  Bins will be placed in employee break rooms, with guides posted at each on what can be composted.

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