The pile of fruit and vegetable scraps bakes for weeks under a breathable cover, eventually reaching temperatures above 160 degrees. Broken down by microbes and carefully monitored by employees of the governments of Maryland and Prince George’s County, the waste transforms into a fine brown dirt that can be sold in bulk as garden compost for $12.50 per cubic yard.
“That’s the gold,” operations manager Randy Bolt said recently, as he handed a pair of gloves to supervisor Steven Birchfield, who pushed into the pile and cupped the fresh compost in his hands as if it were a newborn. “This stuff sells out fast.”
The nutrient-rich mixture is a valuable commodity for Prince George’s, which is hoping eventually to make a profit selling the mixture to urban farms, home gardeners and larger clients (current customers include the White House, the University of Maryland and Denison Landscaping).
The county’s initial efforts have been helped by a federal grant covering 8 percent of costs, though the operation is still only breaking even, selling 5,800 tons of compost since the pilot began in 2013, officials said.
But as interest in the issue spreads east from the West Coast, Prince George’s officials are convinced the county’s operation can be one of the first run by a government that makes money through the large-scale composting of food waste.
“It’s a young industry, and we are on the ground floor,” said Adam Ortiz, director of the county’s Department of the Environment. “The magic is people are really passionate about it. Composting has emerged as a waking giant.”
Local and municipal governments for years have collected yard waste — grass, wood chips and leaves — to make compost for residents and farmers. Montgomery and Prince George’s sell their mix to local gardening retailers under the brand-name Leafgro, using a program run by the Maryland Environmental Service, an independent state agency charged with protecting natural resources.
But yard waste is only plentiful a few months a year, unlike food waste, and the compost made with food scraps is of higher quality and can sell for more money.
As traditional landfills — including in Prince George’s — rapidly fill to capacity, governments are increasingly looking for ways to divert organic matter such as food scraps to composting facilities.
“Disposing of waste comes with a cost,” said Jeff Dannis, chief of operations at Howard County’s publicly run Alpha Ridge composting facility, which also is experimenting with composting food waste but on a much smaller scale than Prince George’s. “The issue is reducing the cost, and composting can be a less expensive method to letting [food scraps] sit in a landfill.”
Composting also is a more environmentally sound practice, proponents say, since food scraps at landfills emit greenhouse gases such as methane as they rot. At the same time, the costs can be prohibitive, and the details of collecting and processing the scraps can be overwhelming.
Prince George’s officials say they do not yet know how many more tons of compost the county would have to make and sell each year to make money on the operation. They are doing the math now, calculating collection costs and assessing the market to determine their likely return.
The goal is to expand, carefully, while competing for additional federal grants, Ortiz said.
Composting is “a full-time job,” said Nora Goldstein, editor of BioCycle magazine, which featured the Prince George’s program in its May edition. “It requires attention, it requires people power — and that costs money.”
Many privately owned facilities have failed to remain operational after running into retaliatory challenges, angry neighbors or other problems. Peninsula Compost in Wilmington, Del., the largest facility in the Mid-Atlantic, was ordered to close late last year after odor complaints and environmental violations. And a pilot program run by New York City came to a halt when the facility that was processing the city’s food waste shut its doors. Officials are trying to relaunch the program.
A 1998 study in the Journal of Environmental Management showed that few composting facilities “receive any revenues from the sale of compost.” But that data is nearly two decades old and doesn’t account for changing demand, regulations or technology — or whether a large-scale effort by a county such as Prince George’s could make the economics of the operation more favorable.
“Composting is where recycling was a generation ago,” said Jeremy Brosowsky, founder of Compost Cab, a private subscriber-based food-waste-collection service in the District. His company uses Zipcars and mobile apps to pick up scraps from people’s homes and transport them to composting facilities at local community gardens.
“The wholesale infrastructure doesn’t exist on the East Coast,” Brosowsky said. “And that’s why the Prince George’s operation is so important. There’s a lack of capacity.”
The Prince George’s composting program operates out of the Western Branch Yard Waste Composting Facility in Upper Marlboro, using a $12,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. This pays for the technology as well as the covers, which are made from a waterproof fabric made by the Gore company, similar to what is used in outdoor apparel.
The county collects food waste from Whole Foods Markets in Alexandria and Annapolis, the Smithsonian, the National Geographic Museum, local public schools and two municipalities — University Park and Takoma Park. It also collects from three local universities, the University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins and George Washington.
Officials work closely with each provider, and with their haulers, to explain what is and isn’t compostable. In addition to fruit and vegetable scraps, Prince George’s will take meat and dairy leftovers and pizza boxes, which are compostable because the cardboard contains organic material. The training is strict, and Birchfield regularly sends back material that isn’t up to standard. “There’s a huge learning curve,” he said. “If it’s contaminated, we won’t take it.”
As each load comes in, Birchfield and his colleagues inspect the food scraps and lay them on a bed of mulch, which absorbs liquid and adds carbon to the mix. Then they blanket the waste with the Gore coverings. A machine heats up the pile as oxygen passes through perforated air pipes in a process called “positive aeration.”
“We create a utopia for microbes that do the composting for us,” Birchfield said.
For four weeks, Birchfield monitors the breakdown of the material from his laptop, adjusting the temperature, moisture and oxygen levels according to the county’s recipe. Workers uncover, dig and rebuild the pile to cure for a few more weeks, until it reaches ideal conditions. The compost is then screened, sifted and tested before being sold in bulk as “Leafgro Gold.”
“Our intention is to eventually get it on shelves,” said marketing manager Nancy Faulkner, explaining that the county would like to expand its client base to stores such as Home Depot.
County officials love to talk about the University of Maryland, where the composting cycle comes full circle. Food scraps leave the dining halls of the College Park campus to become compost, which is then used as fertilizer at Terp Farm in Upper Marlboro. The farm, in turn, grows produce that students and faculty eat at the university — an environmentalist’s dream.
“Everyone is hopeful more of these facilities will open up,” said Adrienne Small, who oversees the university’s composting initiative. “It’s a unique ecosystem.”