Like most Americans, Frederick County residents produce about four pounds of garbage a day, or about 1,460 pounds a year. Multiply that by the county's 200,000 residents, and you get about 292 million pounds of household trash every year.
Fairly straightforward math. What really gives county garbage chief Michael G. Marschner headaches, however, is factoring in the county's rapid growth, many unexpected tons of out-of-county trash, and the fact that space at the landfill is vanishing nearly a decade earlier than expected.
Net result: "A pretty big problem," Marschner said.
Frederick County's landfill will be full by 2008 -- eight years earlier than county officials had predicted a few years ago. They badly miscalculated the effects of a growing population and didn't properly consider the impact of the unpredictable interstate trash market.
The problem, one in a series of infrastructure difficulties aggravated by the county's quick growth, led the Frederick Board of County Commissioners to endorse a plan late last month to truck most of the county's trash out of state.
A growing number of local governments in the region and the country are doing the same to capitalize on extremely low fees at regional "mega-landfills" -- and to avoid the political difficulties of building landfills.
"Nobody wants to have a new landfill anywhere near them, but everyone is generating huge volumes of garbage," said County Commissioner Jan H. Gardner. "It's another cost associated with growth that nobody thinks about."
The plan to export trash has raised the ire of some residents on the narrow road leading to the Frederick County landfill, which would have to bear heavy traffic in large trucks under the proposal.
Shipping the trash out of state could also leave the county vulnerable to the vagaries of the garbage market. If, for example, a large out-of-state landfill sharply increased its prices, the county could end up paying that increase.
But given the options -- neighborhood protests over a landfill or running out of garbage space -- county officials contend that trucking is the best solution.
"The cost of having your own landfill is probably cheaper," said John L. "Lennie" Thompson Jr., president of the commissioners. "But in the long run it really isn't, because there's no real alternative. Politically, it [building a new landfill] is just not something that's possible."
When county officials began looking for a site for a landfill in the late 1980s, they encountered stiff neighborhood opposition that held back construction for years. For many involved in local politics, the memories of the battle are still fresh.
In 1991, shortly after the new landfill opened, county staff predicted that it would serve until 2016. In 2000, shortly after Marschner took office, he looked over the estimates and realized that only about eight years of space remained.
Several years earlier, the county had decreased its dumping fees to remain competitive with other area landfills. Because the landfill is run as a quasi-private enterprise, with county oversight, it tries to turn a profit -- or at least break even. If fees were so high that dumpers went elsewhere, revenue could plummet.
The fee cuts had their intended effect, and use of the landfill increased -- but by too much. Capacity was gobbled up, but officials noticed too late.
As an emergency remedy, county officials in summer 2000 approved a temporary transfer station -- a platform of sorts where trash can be dumped and loaded onto trucks. But, to do that, the county had to get a temporary permit from the Maryland Department of the Environment.
The station was in operation for about a year until the permit expired this year, and trash has again been piling into the landfill.
The commissioners allocated $3.9 million to build a permanent waste-transfer station and Nov. 26, they approved a plan to find a site.
As it has become more expensive to meet federal environmental regulations for new landfills, counties across the country have decided over the past decade to ship their trash to massive, privately operated landfills, often hundreds of miles away.
Such mega-landfills, in southern Virginia, Pennsylvania and Georgia, have flourished, said Jacqueline Byers, director of research for the National Association of Counties.
"A lot of counties got out of the business of running landfills, so there's a wide-open market about deciding where your trash goes," she said.
Frederick County has narrowed a list of possible sites for the transfer station to two -- one at the current landfill and one nearby.
Both would entail sending dozens of trucks a day past the front door of Tom Wade's two-story farmhouse.
Wade and other residents worry about the noise, the smell and the danger from big trucks on a two-lane asphalt road with narrow shoulders.
"It's an accident waiting to happen," Wade said. "One of these days, [a truck] will hit a school bus, and then everyone will be questioning why the county did this."
Marschner, director of the county's Division of Utilities and Solid Waste Management, said the county plans to widen the road and make it safer by the time the trucks start rolling. But he said it is possible the improvements will not be finished when the new facility opens.
With only a few years of capacity left in the landfill, the rush is on to get the transfer station finished, Marschner said.
"We don't have a lot of time to go back and analyze this," he said.