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County composting facilities to start new expansion

UPPER MARLBORO – The Prince George’s County Organics Compositing Facility in Upper Marlboro has begun a $5.8 million expansion and, when completed, will become the largest green waste facility on the East Coast.

The project, whose budget was approved by the county council, will continue with the Zero Waste Initiative, which began earlier this year and helps Maryland reach its annual 40 percent reduction goal.

The project is expected to be finished by this September, according to Adam Ortiz, director of the Prince George’s Department of the Environment.

The Western Branch Composting Facility, operated by the Maryland Environmental Service, has been open for more than 23 years but started accepting food waste in 2013. At its current size, the compound produces 16,000 tons of yard trim and food scraps being proceeded into creating the new compost soil.

The compound will be adding a Sustainable Generation (SG) Bunker system with covers that will include ground trenching for water capture and reuse. It would block any dirty liquid that passes through the compost, known as leachate, before becoming infectious bacteria that may harm the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, Founder of Sustainable Generation, Scott Woods, said.

These “football-sized” bunkers will be moisture manageable, protected from weather and should speed up the process of breaking down the compost from a six-to-nine month process to eight weeks Woods said. Once the expansion is completed, the facility will be able to use both their current system and the new permanent bunkers to process 75,500 tons of compost.

The new technology will make decomposing the waste faster thus making more compost available for purchase, Ortiz said. Revenue from the sale of the compost soil will directly go back to the county and operational costs.

One can purchase either Leafgro soil (compost with only yard waste) or the Leafgro Gold, which contains the vitamins and good nutrients from food waste. According to Ortiz, the Leafgro Gold is good for gardening purposing and is purchased by several landscaping companies for big projects.

“It is a superior product (compared to regular retail soil) because, with food, we are introducing more nutrients into the product,” Ortiz said. “Usually, it is just leaves and branches that people just put out during yard trim pickup, but by adding food to it, we have a richer compost that does a better job growing plants.”

Clients like the University of Maryland stand to benefit the most out of the expansion. Last year, the university delivered 948.5 tons of compostable material to the Western Branch facility, an increase from 754.93 tons in 2016, according to Recycling Coordinator Adrienne Small.

Much of the increase was due to the growing number of composting bins located around the school, which encouraged students to participate. Meanwhile, according to Manager Guy Kilpatric, the TerpFarm, located about seven miles north from the composting facility, has purchased about 80 tons of soil from the Upper Marlboro facility in the past two years.

The soil used has grown all the vegetables served in the dining halls at the university, according to Assistant Director for New Initiatives for Dining Services Allison Lilly Tjaden. With students learning about composting for the first time at the university, it has been a learning experience for some trying to learn what can and cannot be thrown into a composting bin, Tiaden said.

“It is both really exciting and it gives us the opportunity to get the word out but also a little different (from regular recycling), so we have to be careful,” Tiaden said. “We get to work with a lot of students to audit the waste we send to the compost facility, where they are tearing open the bags and checking to see if we did a good job, so the area is getting really good product.”

The growing attention of the compost facilities has even attracted the attention of the county’s Department of the Environment, who started a pilot curbside pickup program for residents in four communities in December of 2017. Residences get their food scraps collected for free on Mondays to be sent to the organics facilities to help create more Leafgro Gold soil.

If the pilot program continues to breed success, Ortiz could see it add more cities to encourage more citizens. With a waitlist of 30 institutions and area public schools using their materials, Ortiz said he does not think they will ever meet the demand.

However, knowing that their product is desired and helps the environment, Ortiz said he will continue pushing more expansion as more residents begin to compost themselves or join pilot programs.

“Compost makes money while landfilling loses money,” Ortiz said. “Landfilling involves throwing things into a big pile and managing it for 30 years. It is the most economically wasteful way to handle this material and composting is the most economically profitable way to handle this material.

“When we compost, we are taking material, increasing its value and selling it back on the market and we are constantly churning the circular profited system that has been good for the county’s bottom-line and our environment.”  

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