August 28th, 2019

Denice Curry, Section Manager, Recycling – Resource Recovery Division Prince George’s County Department of the Environment

Composting closes the loop on the circular bioeconomy for plant-based products and helps sequester carbon. We sat down with staff from the largest municipal food scrap composting facility on the east coast (in Maryland) to learn more about the key role composting plays in our value chain.

PBPC: Could you describe the PG organic composting facility?

Denice: The Prince George’s County Organics Composting Facility is roughly 27 years old, and occupies 200+ acres.  We’re located just off of Route 301 in Upper Marlboro Maryland. Our facility is the largest municipal installation for food scrap composting on the east coast. We have a state of the art GORE Cover system which includes the permanent installation of 12 bunker walled mega heaps and 8 mobile heaps for food scrap composting. We are currently running side by side operations; in vessel, the GORE system, for food scrap composting and open windrows for yard trim only.

PBPC: What types of materials does your facility accept? Do you accept compostable packaging?

Denice: We accept organic materials, all types of compostables. Including food waste, fruits and vegetables, meats, bones, coffee grounds, and filters, eggshells,  food soiled paper products, such as paper plates, napkins, soiled pizza boxes, tea bags and loose tea leaves, dairy products, seafood shells, yard trimmings, leaves, grass, brush, wood waste, untreated wood pallets, downed trees from storm debris and paper.

PBPC: How many tons of material does the facility receive, on an annual basis?

Denice: We processed just under 11,000 tons of food scraps in FY19. But our capacity is 32,000 tons a year. We processed approximately 52,000 tons of yard trim.

PBPC: What would you say are the challenges that prevent you from hitting capacity?

Denice: Food packaging is one. A number of our potential customers, i.e. supermarkets and grocery stores have items that could be and should be composted but due to the plastic and lack of depackaging equipment, those items are being landfilled. Education is another part of the equation. A great number of businesses don’t know they have the opportunity to compost a huge portion of what they are currently throwing in the trash. We are tackling the education piece bit by bit.

PBPC: Tell me about the packaging challenge with food waste.

Denice: A good number of produce distributors have produce every day that goes bad, but most of it is wrapped in plastic. The plastic renders it trash in most cases and it ends up in the landfill.  At present, we’re not able to accept that material as it needs to be depackaged before we can process it through our system. Plastic has been banned from our facility since 2014. So we do not accept plastics for yard trim or food scraps.

PBPC: So if the grocery stores were to replace that plastic with something that was compostable, that might solve the problem on the other side. Would that be accurate?

Denice: Yes, that would be phenomenal. A great asset to us and them.  As the material could then be diverted from the landfill and used in the production of LeafgroGOLD, the rich soil amendment that is derived from food scraps and yard trim. (Another bonus is it costs less to tip at the composting facility than at the landfill) They could save money on disposal costs.

PBPC: It would save the county money, it would reduce the burden on landfill and reduce methane emissions. And all of that would be better for the environment.

Denice: Exactly. Yes.

PBPC: Your facility earns money by creating compost, known as Leafgro/LeafgroGOLD. Where does it go?

Denice:  Our product goes around the region and out of state. The Washington Nationals baseball team uses it on their field at Nationals Park. It’s sold to local nurseries, landscapers and farmers. The county department of public works uses it to reduce soil erosion. The University of Maryland collects food scraps and brings them to us. Then they use our LeafgroGOLD compost to grow vegetables, which are served in their cafeteria. And those food scraps are brought back to the facility to make more compost. (The University is our example of closed loop recycling).

PBPC: That’s exactly the kind of circular economy we’re hoping to create more of, where everything has value and can be repurposed for the good of the environment. Last question, what do you see is the future for composting in PG country or more broadly?

Denice: There is a huge opportunity to divert items from landfills. Food waste and food scraps and yard trim materials and compostable products – when all of these are composted, it can improve our environment, reduce our carbon footprint and generate revenue.