Thinking outside the can

From Washington to Annapolis, governments are cutting back on services. The economy is down, unemployment remains high and the message of the day is to get by with less. So why is Howard County in the midst of an ambitious expansion of its recycling program to include curbside pickup of food scraps?

The environmentally sensitive among us are no doubt delighted with this development. Local officials believe Howard is the first county in the Eastern United States to offer to collect such material from potato peels to coffee grounds and turn them into rich, earthy compost suitable for the garden or the farm field.

And that's certainly the primary reason to embrace recycling. But here's another motive that even the most curmudgeonly Marylander will have to admire: Collecting food scraps is going to save the county some serious dough.

That's right. Howard County is not only being pennywise but banana peel smart. A mini pilot project conducted last year demonstrated that the savings to the county in reduced landfill tipping fees will more than offset both start-up and operating costs.

Here's the math. Beginning next month, the county will expand compost collection to a northeastern collection district of about 5,000 households that runs from Elkridge to Ellicott City. Providing the green 35-gallon trash carts will cost the county about $110,000. Adding food scraps to the regular yard waste collection (and expanding those collections through the winter months) will likely cost another $10,000 annually.

But the subsequent savings from lower landfill costs should add up to $35,000 in the first year alone and will likely increase as landfill charges are expected to rise in short order. That means the county stands to recover its initial investment in about four years and from that point on, the savings only accrue.

This is possible because food scraps are a major component of the household waste stream. The county's pilot found they represent about one-quarter of the trash by weight — and since landfills charge by weight, that's an important detail.

Of course, those calculations don't even take into account the high cost of sending food scraps down the kitchen disposer, and from there to sewage treatment plants. Composting them instead of sending them down the drain reduces water pollution and protects theChesapeake Bay.

Why not recycle food scraps countywide? The start-up costs would be considerable, and a gradual expansion is more prudent. First-time composters aren't necessarily aware of what can they compost (pizza boxes, paper towels and egg cartons make the list) and what they can't (meat, dairy or grease). It takes a while for consumers to adapt.

But the other major impediment is that Maryland does not yet have the commercial compost operators necessary to handle the load. Howard County will be sending its material to a private company in Woodbine where it will be ground, treated and monitored as it gradually breaks down into garden-grade humus.

Admittedly, property owners can always do the composting themselves. Many localities (including Howard) encourage the practice, and it's probably the environmental ideal as it spares the impact of trucking the waste. But not everyone has the land (or time and energy) required for the task, so why not make it as easy on the consumer as possible?

As more counties move to picking up food scraps — and Howard County's successful program is bound to attract imitators — start-up companies will no doubt emerge to handle the composting. Those firms can grow their profits from both sides of the equation, charging local governments for the material and then consumers for the finished compost.

That's the future of solid waste disposal, and the sooner other Maryland counties get on board, the better off they'll be. Saving taxpayer dollars while simultaneously improving the environment is just the kind of creative initiative that's needed in these challenging times.

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