Suburban Maryland officials are on the verge of wagering tens of millions of tax dollars on the appetite of trash-munching microbes.
These are the same microbes that feast on the dead leaves and grass clippings in your back yard.
Officials from a half-dozen counties, including Anne Arundel and Carroll, who are meeting in Annapolis today, want to unleash those microbes on everything from pizza boxes to old shoes.
"I've been hooked on the idea of composting since 1992," said Carroll County Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown. "The beauty is, it lets you fully recycle the waste stream."
Composting garbage plus other recycling efforts could extend the life of Carroll's Northern Landfill outside Westminster by 80 years, he said.
"That's enough to be intrigued," Mr. Brown said. "It makes no sense to keep using up that landfill space every year."
Mounting costs and the environmental risks of burying garbage are leading suburban governments to look for other options, such as composting and incineration. The Maryland Department the Environment estimates the counties will spend $1.15 billion in the next several decades building and safeguarding 32 public landfills, 11 of which already have polluted the ground water around Baltimore.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, many counties jTC considered incinerators or plants that burn trash to produce electricity. That option usually ran into intense opposition from residents who feared the smoke would foul the air.
Composting, on the other hand, "is nothing more than Mother Nature's own natural process," said Nelson E. Widell, executive vice president of Bedminster Bioconversion Corp. The Cherry Hill, N.J., company has built composting plants in Texas, Tennessee, Georgia and Arizona, and is the favorite among Maryland counties interested in composting.
Detractors say composting costs too much, has a spotty track record and competes with other recycling efforts. In some towns, residents complain about the stench of decaying trash. That hasn't stopped some politicians from embracing the idea.
"It has an attractiveness to politicians," said Allen Blakey, public affairs director for the Environmental Industries Association. "It's, Wow, we can do this, and we won't have to have a landfill or a burn unit.
"My sense is [trash composting] has had a lot of troubles and is not being widely used," said Mr. Blakey, whose umbrella group includes trash disposal companies. "A number of plants are closing down."
The state shut down FERST Inc. last summer for a laundry list of environmental infractions. The $45 million composting plant in Curtis Bay is the largest of 17 solid waste composting plants in the country.
Ed Dexter, MDE's chief of field operations and compliance, said FERST struggled to get its equipment, including air scrubbers, to operate properly and to fine-tune the mix of garbage needed to produce usable compost.
Still, environmental regulators endorse trash composting. "Clearly, it can be done properly," said Mr. Dexter, who said he believes the FERST plant on Chemical Road will reopen after the company has worked out the kinks.
At the very least, even if compost has to be dumped at the landfill, Mr. Dexter said, it has one-third the volume of trash. At best, it is a marketable product "that doesn't stink and doesn't have the same potential for pollution," he said.
Bedminster has emerged as the front-runner with suburban counties because it appears to have answered the critics, said John O'Hara, Howard County's chief of solid waste disposal. Although Howard is not considering composting, Mr. O'Hara said he recently toured Bedminster's plant in Sevierville, Tenn.
"They are one of the premier companies," he said.
Bedminster loads trash and sewage sludge into large, rotating tunnels, where an explosion of the microbe population raises the internal temperature as high as 170 degrees Fahrenheit, Mr. Widell said. Three days later, trash comes out the other end as coarse compost. After another four to six weeks in a warehouse, the material is ready for sale to nurseries.
None of the counties coming to Annapolis today to hear Bedminster's sales pitch has committed to build solid waste composting plants. In addition to Carroll and Anne Arundel, officials from Frederick, Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties are expected.
Carroll has received bids from three national firms for a plant at its Northern Landfill. Mr. Brown said he expects his county to take the plunge next spring.
Anne Arundel is reviewing proposals from 17 firms, including Bedminster. Anne Arundel and Carroll are waiting for a report on the feasibility of regional trash-disposal solutions, including jointly owned landfills and incinerators. The report, commissioned by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, is due in March.
The only remaining question is cost, said Bob Hayes, public works director for Frederick County. Mr. Hayes said Frederick ruled out composting three years ago as too expensive. However, he said, county officials are encouraged that the counties might band together to negotiate a lower price.