From table scraps to garden soil

Table scraps aren't destined for the garbage disposal any more.

At least not in Howard County, where executive Ken Ulman spent Friday morning delivering giant green bins to homeowners around Clarksville who signed on to recycle their kitchen waste so the county can turn it into compost at its new Alpha Ridge landfill.

"They do this all over the West Coast," said Mr. Ulman, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor. "There is no reason why we can't do this in Howard County."

This is the second collection zone to get the green bins — the program was launched around Elkridge in the spring — and more than a third of the 3,800 homeowners signed up. He's hoping neighborhood conversations will spread the practice. Meanwhile, other county residents are asking when they will be brought on board.

Victoria Stone was one of the residents to open her front door and see the county executive, aides and a television camera on her front porch. Shirt-sleeves rolled to his elbows, Mr. Ulman showed her the shiny new bin and the recyclable bags that came with it.

"I thought about creating my own compost pile in the yard," she said. About 6,000 county residents already do that, Mr. Ulman said. "But it always seemed like too much trouble. This makes it easy."

This is how it works. You collect kitchen scraps in a stainless steel bowl or a charming countertop container or a plastic bin under the sink lined with one of the small recyclable bags — just no meat, fish or dairy. Tie the bag off and drop it in the bin for pick-up on the regular recycling day. There is room for yard waste, too.

At Alpha Ridge, the food waste is covered, heated and aerated, and in a matter of only weeks it is available for sale to homeowners or landscapers as compost. The money helps defray the cost of the service.

It is part of Mr. Ulman's pledge to reduce county waste to zero through recycling, and I can testify that it works.

I have been a recycling-composting nut case for more than a decade, and what I have left each week to send to the landfill wouldn't fill a lunch bag.

My son, who really should have been taking care of any leftovers I had, was completely disgusted by the process, especially when I asked him to take a pitchfork and turn the compost pile. There is a yuck factor, I admit. And I have seen evidence of creatures looking for a snack.

These nice bins, with their snap top lids, eliminate those issues.

But Howard County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said those weren't the objections she heard when she and student interns from her office went door-to-door pitching the new composting service.

"Mostly they said, 'I don't have time' or 'I don't want to be bothered,'" she said.

The amount of food we waste in this country is a sin. The Environment Protection Agency estimates that we throw away 1.5 pounds of food per person per day. And it is much worse between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when we cook more than we can eat — about 5 million tons according to an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal last year.

Once food waste ends up in the landfills, it releases methane as it decomposes, a greenhouse gas worse than carbon dioxide. Composting it instead would eliminate that pollution and has the added benefit of turning food waste into material that can be used to condition the soil in our gardens.

We have become quite comfortable recycling our bottles and cans. Doing the same with yard waste — leaves and grass clippings — is almost second-nature, too. According to the EPA, 60 percent of it gets recycled. But banana peels and moldy bread, rotting fruit and vegetables, coffee grounds and egg shells? Almost 97 percent of it ends up in landfills.

We can change that, one green bin at a time.

For more information about recycling food waste in Howard County, visit

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at and @SusanReimer on Twitter.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad