Carroll officials smelled the garbage, fingered the compost and mulled a question: Could the county turn its waste into a usable product?
Six county officials and the chairman of the citizens Waste-to-Energy Committee toured the Ferst Cos. composting plant Friday afternoon in Curtis Bay. The company president and chief executive officer said he'd be interested in talking to them about building and operating a similar plant in Carroll.
"Composting works," Ronald W. Pickett said. "We built this plant as a model."
The plant, at 5800 Chemical Road, accepted its first load of waste in January. Next January, Ferst will launch a national marketing campaign to try to build other plants, Mr. Pickett said.
Carroll officials are considering composting as a way to reduce the amount of garbage dumped in county landfills. Composting uses a natural decaying process to turn garbage into a peat moss-type product.
The Carroll officials also are considering building a waste-to-energy plant that would burn garbage and generate electricity. They are not close to making a decision.
During the Friday tour, Lloyd R. Helt Jr. of Westminster, the Waste-to-Energy Committee chairman, said Carroll should take "a wait-and-see" approach to new technology while it continues to recycle.
"We have landfill space for at least 10 years. Why rush it? Take your time, study the technology, be part of a regional plan," he said.
Carroll does not generate enough garbage to operate a composting plant or an incinerator on its own. Garbage from neighboring counties would have to be trucked in.
As Commissioner Elmer C. Lippy toured the plant, he said he compared it with a composting plant in Sevier County, Tenn., that county officials also have studied. A vice president of Bedminster Bioconversion Corp., of Cherry Hill, N.J., that operates the Sevier County plant, spoke to county officials two weeks ago.
Bedminster includes sludge in its composting process, which Mr. Lippy said was "a plus." Mr. Pickett said the Ferst process could be set up to compost sludge.
After the tour, Commissioner Donald I. Dell said he wasn't ready to comment on his impressions of the plant. Commissioner Julia W. Gouge did not attend.
Ferst invested $45 million in its plant, which can process 600 tons of garbage a day. Its only customer is Browning-Ferris Industries Inc., which has a 15-year contract.
The process is simple. BFI trucks bring in garbage and dump it in piles that almost touch the ceiling of a warehouse. The garbage is placed on a conveyor belt and workers, wearing gloves, aprons and sometimes masks, sort recyclables and plastic bags that are not recyclable.
Recyclables -- glass, aluminum, tin, metal, cardboard, paper and some plastic -- are compacted or baled and shipped to manufacturers.
Then the garbage is shredded, water is added and the material is sent through a tunnel -- 65 feet long, 14 feet high and 20 feet wide -- heated to 170 degrees Fahrenheit. The garbage composts for 18 days in the tunnel, then is put in an aerated pile for up to 30 days.
The result is a light brown material that has no strong smell. It looks as if it could be used to line a gerbil cage.
Ferst delivers 10 to 15 truckloads of compost every day to farmers throughout the state. None is going to Carroll, although Ferst is talking with one Carroll vegetable grower now about using compost, said James H. Himel, director of planning.
The compost has no nutritional value, but it helps soil retain water, acts as a conditioner and slows water runoff, Mr. Pickett said.
Ferst is working with farmers to study the compost's effectiveness and how much should be used on fields. The company hopes to sell compost eventually, he said.
Mr. Dell, a Westminster dairy and grain farmer, asked whether the compost should be used on fields that grow food for human consumption.
"Here, we're pulling metals out, and we're left with a very benign material," Mr. Pickett said. "Just think of it as peat moss."
If Carroll chooses to build a composting plant, 70 percent to 75 percent of the county's garbage could be recycled in the process, Mr. Pickett said. The rest would have to be buried in a landfill.
Ferst charges a tipping fee per ton to dump at its plant. If Carroll builds a plant, the tipping fee probably would be around $50, but it could be lower if the plant were built on county property and if the garbage that could not be recycled could be disposed of in a county landfill, Mr. Pickett said.
Carroll currently charges a $40-per-ton tipping fee to dump in the landfill.
It would take about three years to design and build a composting plant, Mr. Pickett said. Ferst employs 109 workers, who are paid $5.50 to $6.50 an hour in the plant, and nine workers in the office. Del. Lawrence A. LaMotte, a District 5B Democrat, is the company's director of corporate development.