Like a fine wine, the Organics Composting Facility in Upper Marlboro, MD, possesses a complex bouquet. On a weekday afternoon in mid-September, after a streak of unseasonably hot days, a discerning nose would have detected notes of sandalwood, vanilla, wet leaves, raisins and stewed plums mingling in the air.
“It’s fresh to me,” said Denice Curry, inhaling deeply. “In general, it smells good.”
To Curry, it’s the smell of success. She has been one of the primary architects of a program that collects food waste from Prince George’s County residents and hauls it here instead of a landfill. Six years ago, the effort began with 200 residents; by January 2023, officials had made curbside containers available to about 75,000 residents, representing nearly half of the county’s eligible population.
Food-scrap collection is becoming more common in communities across the Chesapeake Bay region and beyond. Since 2005, the number of U.S. households with access to such programs has mushroomed from 576,000 to nearly 15 million, according to a survey published in September by BioCycle, a magazine that promotes recycling.
The Mid-Atlantic has been at the vanguard of the movement. New York leads the region with 1.7 million households with access. That is followed by Virginia with 672,000, Maryland with 221,000, DC with 108,000 and Pennsylvania with 6,500, according to the magazine. These include communities with curbside pickup, drop-off only or a combination of the two.
Supporters point to benefits such as lower levels of methane generated by landfills, increased carbon sequestration in soils where the compost is applied and the creation of new jobs. The material can also aid the Chesapeake cleanup, local advocates say, by helping soils retain nutrients that might otherwise find their way into the estuary, fueling destructive algae blooms.
But the effort hasn’t been without growing pains. Local governments can face hefty upfront costs, such as paying for the construction of processing facilities and buying curbside containers by the hundreds or thousands. In many communities, the programs have often rolled out exclusively to the dwellers of detached single-family homes, raising equity concerns.
And then there is perhaps the biggest hurdle of all: persuading residents to fill their bins. In communities large and small, many programs have limped off the starting line.
Take Arlington, VA, where, in September 2021, officials attempted to goose participation in the startup by supplying residents with a how-to website, a 2-gallon indoor caddy and 20 compostable bags. They also produced instructional videos and hosted town halls in the run-up.
Erik Grabowsky, the DC suburb’s longtime solid waste chief, said he hoped a little more than half of the locality’s 32,000 homes would become regulars. But the rate has been closer to 20–25%. He attributed the muted response to difficulties with changing human behavior. The program, he added, also has struggled to overcome a perceived “yuck” factor.
“People have all these concerns about, ‘Oh, I’m going to get bugs,’ or, ‘Oh, I’m going to get rats,’” Grabowsky said. Waste authorities have generally responded to such concerns by providing vermin-proof containers and advising residents to use paper or other biodegradable material at the bottom to reduce odors.
In her Upper Marlboro neighborhood, Janet Gingold said her container is often the only one at the curb on Monday mornings. She wants local officials to offer more public education and push back harder against any whiff of an idea that composting is hard, smelly work.
“It’s really easy,” said Gingold, chairwoman of the Prince George’s Sierra Club chapter. “I think a lot of people think of composting as something you have to work at. But the program in Prince George’s County is so user-friendly.”
How much a household pays for the service varies widely by geography.
Some communities offer the service for free, such as Takoma Park, MD. Others have raised their waste-hauling fees by modest amounts. In Virginia, for example, Falls Church’s monthly cost went up by $8 while Arlington’s rose by $12. In nearby Alexandria, residents can get the service free for six months, then pay $21 per month afterward. But community-supported programs almost always cost less than the $32 per month that private contractors typically charge in the region, advocates point out.
New composting milestones are cropping up with regularity around the Bay.
Last January, Maryland, in an effort to support the state’s nascent organics recycling industry, became the second state in the Bay drainage after New York to begin enforcing limits on dumping organic waste into landfills. The state started requiring the largest generators of food waste, such as supermarkets, to recycle the material instead. Beginning Jan. 1, 2024, the law expands from applying only to entities that produce at least 2 tons of scraps per week to those that churn out as little as one ton.
This fall, in neighboring DC, officials are expanding a system of drop-off sites to include an experimental curbside pickup effort. About 9,000 homes were expected to be on board by the end of September.
In Prince George’s County, officials hope to expand curbside service by early 2024 to all 180,000 residents currently receiving trash and traditional recycling services. At that point, the residential composting program will be the third-largest in the country after New York City and Seattle, they say.
One of the most salient measures of the surge in food composting’s popularity is the Organics Composting Facility itself. Owned by the county and operated by the Maryland Environmental Service, the 200-acre campus accepts both yard and food waste from as far away as Ohio and South Carolina. Last year, only a half-percent of all loads comprised food scraps, said operations manager Steven Birchfield. This year, that figure has jumped to 2.5%.
The two types of scraps are layered together like a “sideways lasagna,” he said during a walking tour of the grounds. From there, microbes and nature take over. If managed properly, the compost doesn’t smell like rotting garbage. It takes about eight weeks for the material inside the brownish mounds to be ready for sale. Garden centers and farms are among the biggest buyers.
“It’s kind of like back to the future,” said Curry, the Prince George’s official. “My grandmother was composting at home. She used it to fertilize her hydrangeas. We’re cycling back to what nature wanted us to do.”
This article was originally published on BayJournal.com and is republished with permission.