Food-scrap composting finds a home in Howard

Howard Hord considers himself a chef of sorts, but the food he works with is a little past its prime.

Using moldy melon rinds, orange peels and other castoff fruit and vegetables from some Howard County kitchens, Hord is "cooking" the first batches of plant fertilizer to be produced by the new composting facility at the county's Alpha Ridge landfill in Marriottsville, set to mark its official opening on Monday, Earth Day.

Hord, the landfill's operations supervisor, and his bosses hope they've got a winning recipe for reducing trash in the suburban county, one that the rest of Maryland will want to follow.

"We're the guinea pigs," Hord said as he waited for a trash compactor truck to deliver a fresh load of compost ingredients. It's mostly grass clippings, branches and other yard debris, but also some pungent food scraps and greasy pizza boxes collected from about 1,000 households in the eastern part of the county. He and his crew mix them together with a little animal manure, trying to get just the right blend to produce a rich organic material for growing plants or flowers.

Howard County, one of the first East Coast communities to try large-scale composting of household food scraps, is doubling down on the pilot program it launched a little over a year ago. The county recently completed an $800,000 processing facility at Alpha Ridge, where Hord and his crew are working to produce compost that county officials plan to sell back to residents and also use to enhance parks and government property.

"What we are doing here is clearly important for playing our role in sustainability," said County Executive Ken Ulman, who plans to mark the facility's startup with Monday's ribbon-cutting ceremony. "It will, when it's successful on a broader scale," he predicted, "show to other jurisdictions that it's possible."

Food-scrap composting is an established practice in some West Coast communities, but has been slow to spread. Only about 3 percent of the 34 million tons of food waste produced nationwide in 2010 got diverted from landfills or incinerators for composting, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Ulman, inspired by seeing how widely accepted composting seems in places like Portland, Ore., and Seattle, decided to try it here. In 2011, the county invited residents in select communities to collect their fruit and vegetable castoffs and put them out for pickup once a week, just as they do with recyclables and trash. About one in five households in the targeted area volunteered, and received a green bin from the county for their food and yard waste.

The pilot program hit a costly glitch, though, when state regulators shut down the commercial composting facility in Carroll County where Howard was sending its food scraps, citing concerns over polluted runoff from the site. The county began trucking its food waste to Delaware for composting, but the cost for that ran $65 per ton, well above the $41.60 per ton the county pays to send its trash by rail to a Virginia landfill.

So the county set about developing its own facility, making sure the Maryland Department of the Environment approved its plans for controlling runoff and odors — two issues that have plagued other composting operations.

At the Alpha Ridge landfill, a trash truck dumps out its load of yard waste and food scraps, and county environmental services workers wade into the pile wielding box cutters to rip open plastic bags and remove them. A crew of five took an hour to get through one delivery last week.

Once de-bagged, the debris is scooped up by a front-end loader and put through a massive grinder, which shreds everything with a jet engine's scream. The material then gets covered with a tarp, first to "cook" out disease-causing bugs and next to let beneficial microbes hasten decomposition.

The piles get moved every couple of weeks to ensure even treatment. All the while, a perforated pipe on the bottom of the pile draws air through the material to capture any rotten odors and filter them out.

The whole process should take about three months, officials say, roughly half the time such material normally needs to break down in nature.

County officials hope the new composting facility will save taxpayers money in addition to its environmental benefits, which include reducing the need for chemical fertilizer and avoiding the release of more climate-warming carbon into the atmosphere. Officials figure they can compost more cheaply than landfilling, by selling the finished product to offset the costs of collecting and processing the food scraps.

While only about 20 percent of eligible households participate, county officials said they're encouraged and expect to expand collection to another area in the coming year. Officials say the program has diverted about 200 tons from the county's waste stream to date, and they say each household puts out about 10 pounds of food scraps for collection every week.

The biggest hurdle to broader participation has been what officials call the "yuck factor," with residents reluctant to store food waste for a few days rather than flush it down the garbage disposal or toss it into the trash.

"My biggest fear was that it was going to smell really bad," said Rhamin Ligon of Elkridge. But her neighbor had signed up for the curbside collection, so she decided to give it a shot.

"I've always wanted to compost for my family, and have quite frankly been too lazy to do it at my house," said Ligon, an emergency physician, With the county sparing her from the chore of backyard composting, she fitted her kitchen trash can with a small receptacle for collecting food scraps.

"When I'm cooking, I can just throw vegetables in there, so it made it simple," she explained. "It kind of smells a little bit like it's fermenting when you dump it out," she said, but "it doesn't really smell bad."

Food-scrap recycling has begun to catch on more in the past few years in Maryland, according to the Department of the Environment, though mainly among restaurants and some large food users such as the University of Maryland. Pilot residential programs similar to Howard's have been launched or are in the works in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, according to Jay Apperson, MDE spokesman.

In the Baltimore area, it appears Howard County will remain a pioneer among local governments in collecting and composting food scraps from homes. Spokespeople in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City all said they're not ready to follow suit any time soon.

"I'm excited for them, and somewhat jealous," said Michael Beichler, chief of Baltimore County's bureau of solid waste management. He said the county is focused for now on improving its residential recycling rate, which at 14 percent overall falls well short of expectations.

"There's a reason why other jurisdictions haven't done it," Ulman said. "It's not the easiest thing to do."

Howard's executive said he hopes composting catches on enough with supermarkets and other major food vendors so that a private company will want to build a large-scale processing facility and take over the residential business as well.

"My real hope is that we're able to change the culture, to convince people who think it's nasty and messy ... that in fact it's easy and convenient," Ulman said. "When you think about it, most families produce very little that can't be recycled … or go into food scrap."

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