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Answer in the dirt Anne Arundel County: Composting may work if questions can be answered.


ANNE ARUNDEL, Carroll and four other Maryland counties liked what they heard last week from a national refuse disposal company pitching composting as a cure for their trash problems. It's not hard to see why. Composting plants cost much less than landfills or waste-to-energy facilities. They're environmentally friendly. They turn garbage into a useful product, i.e. dirt. And communities generally don't fight them the way they fight landfills or incinerators. But for all that composting sounds like a magic answer to a major municipal dilemma, it won't succeed unless local governments do their homework to figure out what kind of system will work best.

For starters, they need to decide if composting is going to be a regional project, or if they're each going to do their own thing. There are clear advantages to the regional approach. Bedminster Bioconversion Corp., the firm that met with representatives from Anne Arundel, Carroll, Frederick, Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties last week, promises a volume discount if several jurisdictions participate, whether they build their own plants or a single shared facility.

The latter makes more sense economically, since the costs of constructing and operating the plant would be shared. Either way, several counties would have to cooperate -- a skill much talked about but still rarely practiced.

Other key questions must be answered, too. Local governments need to figure whether it makes more sense to build and own composting plants themselves, or have private companies do it for them in exchange for a guarantee of a certain volume of refuse. They better examine a composting operation carefully to make sure it is creating a safe, marketable product; farmers aren't going to buy composted dirt tainted with heavy metals. They need to look at composting in the context of their entire solid waste disposal programs, realizing that until technology makes a giant leap they are still going to need landfills or incinerators.

These questions should not discourage the elected leaders who were enthusiastic about what Bedminster showed them; only remind them that composting on this scale is a complicated matter bearing little resemblance to those heaps of leaves rotting in some folks' backyards.

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