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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Talking Trash!

Jan Gardner

Trash is a hot topic in Frederick County! Virtually everyone creates trash yet few people know what happens to their trash after it is picked up at the curb! Since this topic is complex, my first column will focus on defining the problem and presenting information about the solid waste alternatives that have been considered by the county commissioners. Future columns will discuss costs, environmental impacts, and next steps.

Defining the problem:

The County receives 600 to 800 tons of trash five days per week at our landfill location on Reichs Ford Road with an additional 200 to 300 tons received on Saturdays. That’s a lot of trash! Frederick County government is tasked with the responsibility to dispose of our community’s solid waste in a manner that protects public health, is cost efficient, and minimizes environmental impacts. The Frederick County Commissioners must responsibly dispose of this huge pile of waste. Public health concerns will continue to demand local government to manage this big pile.

Frederick County owns and operates a landfill, provides curbside recycling and 12 drop-off recycling centers, grass and yard waste composting, e-cycling, textile recycling and a number of other related services such as tires, batteries, and hazardous waste days. A new transfer station is scheduled to open this summer and will include a recycling component that will allow for expanded recycling opportunities including commercial recycling.

Frederick County has limited remaining landfill space. If all our community’s waste was sent to the landfill for disposal, the capacity of the landfill would be fully exhausted within three years. In an effort to preserve our landfill space, the commissioners are currently transferring and shipping the majority of our solid waste to a mega-landfill in Virginia. This option has become rapidly more expensive as the cost of fuel has increased. The cost per ton to ship our waste to Virginia has increased from $58/ton to $74/ton over a six-month period solely due to fuel surcharge increases. While transferring our trash to Virginia preserves local landfill space, the cost and environmental impacts associated with this option clearly makes it our worst choice and a poor long-term solution. Transferring our waste to an out-of-state mega landfill has always been considered an interim solution rather than a long-term solution. Shifting our waste burden to another community also raises ethical questions.

Frederick County government provides solid waste disposal but does not provide solid waste collection with the exception of curbside recycling. Private haulers provide collection services to individual households as subscribers and to municipalities and large Homeowner Associations by contract. The City of Frederick provides collection to its residents utilizing city employees and vehicles. The County provides curbside recycling to approximately 56,000 households through a contract with one hauler. The County would like to exert some control over collection in order to require haulers to offer recycling, implement pay as you throw programs (fee based on volume of waste placed at the curb), and mandatory recycling. The County cannot require certain services to be provided by haulers through licensing agreements (used in other parts of the country) because haulers are licensed by the state not the county. The County does not have the legislative authority to require haulers to provide certain services. The County Commissioners sought legislative authority through our state delegation to implement solid waste franchise districts to allow us to bid collection by district and require single stream recycling collection as well as trash collection. Franchising would also allow the county to require by contract other special services such as yard waste collection; bulky waste collection periodically; and, even organic collection. Citizens have suggested that the county commissioners implement pay as you throw trash collection (PAYT) which would require those who create more trash to pay more and those that create less trash to pay less. Pay as you throw collection systems in concert with free or low cost recycling would create greater incentive for people to recycle. This is a good idea but something the County currently does not have the legislative ability to implement. We have requested this authority for the past three years but the legislation has repeatedly failed. Municipalities, since they are chartered governments, do have the ability to implement pay as you throw collection systems. This will be a topic of debate with the municipalities in July.

The County Commissioners have been discussing a combination of solid waste disposal alternatives for several years. A summary of key discussion and presentation dates is attached at the end of this article (Chronology). While some people have criticized the “process”, the actual process has been long and covered a broad range of solid waste disposal options and topics. The BOCC has visited multiple solid waste operations in our region; in Seattle/King County, Washington; in Boulder, CO; and, in Europe. The European trip included recycling, composting and waste-to-energy facilities. Most European Countries have banned new landfills and aggressive recycling and WTE facilities are common. King County, Washington is known for its leadership in “all things environmental” from land-use, hybrid cars, solid waste disposal, and global warming/climate change initiatives. This trip included visits to recycling operations, composting, and WTE. The trip to Boulder focused on “Zero Waste” strategies, recycling and composting programs, school recycling, and private sector examples of zero waste strategies in practice as well as meetings with local elected officials. Commissioners, staff and citizens have also visited Montgomery County’s WTE facility and composting operations. These trips provided additional information and insight into functioning solid waste alternatives. The BOCC also hosted a Solid Waste Forum last July with a variety or presenters. A video of this forum can be viewed on the county web page at ; then click on video tab on home page; then scroll down to Special Events and click on the video for the July 14, 2007 Solid Waste Forum. Presenters include representatives from Harford County; Fairfax County; the EPA; and, the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) with a question/answer period at the end. Thus, the “process” has included many traditional BOCC meetings and presentations, a Solid Waste Public Forum; and site trips to locations near and far. In my opinion, the process has been very comprehensive and covered the full range of ideas and solid waste disposal alternatives in practice around the region, the country, and in Europe. The volume of information considered is almost overwhelming.

Over the years, the county commissioners have evaluated the following solid waste disposal options. I have noted implementation plans for several options.

Landfills – both in-county and out-of-state.

Recycling Options:

  • Single Stream Recycling
  • Current pilot program in Mt. Airy with good participation
  • Out to bid for countywide for single-family housing

  • All households will receive a large tote to co-mingle recycled materials. More materials accepted. More convenient.
  • Utilize a Materials Recovery Facility or MRF to sort single stream recycling materials. A regional MRF has capacity in Elkridge, MD. A MRF was observed in Boulder County. Citizens suggest as part of a proposed “alternate plan” that Frederick County construct a MRF and provide regional recycling processing for surrounding counties. BOCC decided to use already available capacity at Elkridge MRF.
  • School System Recycling – Meetings with BOE in progress This will be a focus of the new approved position for Recycling Education and Outreach
  • Commercial Recycling – Implementation with opening of new transfer Station later this summer and ability to take recycled materials to regional MRF.
  • Approved new position for Commercial Recycling Specialist
  • Approved rates for commercial recycling (1/3rd of cost of trash disposal)

  • Multi-family recycling – Multi-family housing will receive existing blue bins when single stream recycling is implemented for single-family households. Commercial rates may apply to many multi-family complexes.

  • Construction & Demolition materials (C & D) recycling – The County provides disposal for construction and demolition materials at the landfill. These materials are not transferred to out of state landfills due to the inability to compact items and the cost of shipping. The county has recently bid out C & D recycling to keep some of these materials in re-use and out of the landfill.
Collection System Improvement County has sought solid waste franchising legislative authority to more cost effectively and efficiently implement single stream recycling and implement Pay as you Throw (PAYT). Legislation has been unsuccessful three years in a row.

Waste-to-Energy Evaluated multiple types of waste-to-energy options including thermal, gasification and plasma arc. Some technologies such as plasma arc and plasma gasification are unproven technologies that have not yet been implemented on a large scale. Mass burn or thermal waste-to-energy is proven technology. The BOCC has decided to cost and further evaluate the implementation of a WTE facility at three different sizes – 600 tons per day; 900 tons per day; and 1,500 tons per day as a regional facility with Carroll County.The estimated cost per ton with a 1,500 ton per day facility is lower than the cost to transfer waste to an out-of-state mega landfill.

The County is currently composting grass and yard waste into mulch. The County has recently paved out an area at the landfill and purchased a windrow system to turn the material to improve our composting capability and improve the quality of the mulch. The County has discussed a pilot program for combining food scraps or organics for composting from a local restaurant or restaurants. Large scale composting for organics and/or curbside organic collection is being implemented in a few communities around the country but is expensive and relatively new. Composting successfully countywide could require an additional curbside collection of food scraps and other organics and requires collection of un-adulterated materials. Composting may be considered more broadly in the future once single stream recycling is fully implemented.

Resource Recovery and Re-Use
The county currently offers a number of specialized recycling and resource recovery options including e-cycling for electronics, computers, and televisions. Textile recycling, collection of tires, batteries, white goods, and other materials are available at our landfill locations. The county web page provides information for consumers to use to locate private and/or non-profits that provide resource re-use or recovery for building materials and many other household items. There is an opportunity to expand in this area and support for doing so.

Legislative Initiatives
The County Commissioners have advanced multiple legislative initiative related to solid waste in recent years including bottle/return legislation; excise taxes to make manufacturers responsible for the disposal of their packaging; and solid waste franchising to allow for an efficient implementation of single stream recycling and pay as you throw. The state legislature has also considered banning plastic bags (grocer bags and other retail plastic bags) but this has been unsuccessful. The BOCC does not have the authority to ban plastic bags or place packaging requirements on manufacturers.

The County Commissioners desire to implement a fully integrated and comprehensive long-term solid waste disposal system. The commissioners are fully committed to expanding recycling, composting, and resource recovery and have demonstrated this commitment through the addition of new recycling staff, investment in single stream recycling, legislative initiatives, and investment in composting. However, it is clear that a portion of our waste stream cannot be recycled, re-used or recovered and will need to be disposed of in a manner that protects public health. This remaining portion of the waste stream or residual will need disposal either in a new landfill or at a WTE facility. The majority of the commissioners have decided to further evaluate and cost WTE while at the same time expanding our investment and commitment to recycling. In my opinion, this is responsible and an example of good government.

There are legitimate concerns about cost and pollution with all our solid waste options. All of them are expensive and all of them have environmental impacts that must be mitigated. My next column will focus on these two topics. The cost of WTE should be evaluated and compared to other options on a cost/ton basis. This evaluation demonstrates that the cost of WTE is comparable or less expensive than what we are doing right now! The cost of WTE in Montgomery County has been used as an example of how expensive a WTE facility can be for a community. However, when this total cost is converted to a cost per household so people can understand what the multi-million dollars of expenditure means to them, the cost per household in Montgomery County associated with WTE is well under $100 annually. This is less than the disposal cost per household in Frederick County! While a WTE facility is expensive so are all the other options. The cost of solid waste disposal should be considered within the context of recent county investments. For instance, the cost of WTE is comparable to recent investments in water/sewer infrastructure and much less than public investment in schools, roads, and parks in recent years. There is no doubt that the cost of solid waste disposal is expensive and a topic of legitimate concern and debate. More to follow on this topic.

Our solid waste management challenges do have solutions. A significant part of problem solving relies on listening to people, consensus building, and finding common ground. We need to stay focused on debate about solutions. I believe everyone involved in this debate is closer together than sometimes seems apparent. There is general agreement and support for increasing efforts for recycling, composting, and resource recovery. We need to focus on doing these things and then dispose of what remains in the most environmentally friendly and cost efficient manner as possible. I think there is general agreement that what remains is not zero! We do need a complete solution, a realistic solution, and a solution or solutions that most people can find reasonable and supportable. Working together, we can solve our solid waste dilemma. There is a lot of positive energy out there!


Next Column(s): Cost of Solid Waste Options
Environmental Impacts of Various Solid Waste Options

Jan Gardner is President, Board of County Commissioners, Frederick County, Maryland


Anonymous said...

Two comments: 1) "Evaluated multiple types of waste-to-energy options including thermal, gasification and plasma arc. Some technologies such as plasma arc and plasma gasification are unproven technologies that have not yet been implemented on a large scale." The only evaluation I'm aware of are two pages in the RW Beck report. IMO this falls woefully short of an 'evaluation' when 320 million taxpayer dollars are at stake. Was there some other mechanism used to evaluate these technologies that I'm just not aware of? 2) "The majority of the commissioners have decided to further evaluate and cost WTE" Hasn't the process gone further than this? Preliminary bids were received and the cost has been refined. Best and final bids from the two selected bidders are due next month. Hasn't a majority of the board already decided to go with a WTE plant?

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your question about plasma gasification. The Beck Report was the beginning of the discussion not the end. Regarding plasma gasification, we received a copy of a letter from MDE on this subject when Washington County asked if the state would consider or permit this technology. This letter and some other information is posted on my section of the county webpage. Go to then Government then Comm.Gardner then Waste Manangement.

The County Commissioners have not voted to go with a WTE facility. We have voted to further explore this option and gather financials.

Jan Gardner