This is part of our Better Baltimore series, which aims to use readers’ feedback and ideas to hold government agencies and powerful entities accountable. We’re also interested in stories about readers and communities driving change on their own. Have a tip? Tell us.
As the saying goes: One person’s trash is another person’s compost.
If you happen to wield a green thumb in Maryland, you may have noticed changes in how the waste from your yard, farm or garden gets collected. That’s because state and local officials are gradually putting more muscle behind “cleanly” turning yard waste, trimmings and other natural products such as food scraps into compost, the earthy-smelling material used to enrich soil, protect air quality and conserve water and energy.
Several jurisdictions in Maryland have implemented curbside yard waste collection services for composting, including Baltimore County, where crews now will only collect yard waste out of compostable paper bags, a change that went into effect last year. These bags must be marked “compostable” when purchased and are usually available at hardware stores.
A Baltimore Banner reader suspected that the added cost and effort for residents caused the amount of yard waste collected in Baltimore County to decline. He wanted to know: Do the benefits of the policy change outweigh the drop?
As it turns out, collection volumes have dropped, our reporting found — but county officials still tout the new policy as a step in the right direction.
Can both things be true? For the latest in our Better Baltimore series inspired by reader feedback, we dug in to see what we could unearth.
Where the waste goes
Yard waste diversion — keeping natural materials out of landfills and incinerators — is a relatively new practice in the U.S. Maryland introduced state-centralized composting in the 1980s and, in 1992, it banned separately collected yard waste from disposal.
The state has 16 permitted and operational composting facilities, and another four operating out of refuse disposal facilities, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment. A new facility that processes food scraps and other organic materials opened in Jessup late last year.
Maryland recycled 85% of the tons of yard trimmings generated in 2016, according to the state, the latest year for which data is available. New facilities like the one in Jessup are expected to help the state ramp up its composting capacity, and a 2021 state law requires more large institutions — such as supermarkets, food manufacturers and schools — to separate organic waste from their trash.
Landfills and incinerators are expensive to build, and county governments would rather conserve space in existing facilities than purchase more land to construct new ones, said Doug Myers, Maryland senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation who has studied composting. Plus: “Everybody I know objects to having a landfill in their backyard,” he said.
There are also environmental and public health drawbacks to using landfills and incinerators: Older landfills don’t have seals to capture methane, a powerful greenhouse gas released as a byproduct of waste decomposition. Incinerators in particular are known to poison air quality and cause medical complications for people living or working nearby. “We really shouldn’t be incinerating trash anymore,” Myers said.
Compost can enrich soil, help grow grass and act as a natural fertilizer for yards, crops and landscaping projects. It’s also become a money maker: Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, which offer separated yard waste collection to county residents, use that material to produce a soil amendment called Leafgro that is available for purchase at retailers around Maryland and other mid-Atlantic states.
Most other jurisdictions in the Baltimore and Washington metro areas offer some form of curbside yard waste collection.
An exception is Baltimore City; public works department spokeswoman Jennifer Combs said all organic waste collected goes to the incinerator or landfill.
The city agency’s 10-year solid waste plan includes guidance for implementing a yard waste collection program and constructing an in-city composting facility. They estimate organic materials constitute more than a fifth of the city’s disposed waste stream.
A lower-than-expected drop
In the counties that do offer separated yard waste collection, here’s how it works: Residents with excess yard materials — twigs, leaves, hedge clippings and weeds, for instance — can bag them and set them out on certain days for collection, much like how trash and recycling services work. Several jurisdictions, including Anne Arundel and Howard counties, permit the use of reusable bins in addition to paper bags. Montgomery County residents can order reusable bins for free.
Baltimore County instituted the paper bag-only policy in April 2022 as a way to enhance the quality of the compost produced from yard waste. Plastic-laden compost is “not appropriate” for reuse or resale, said Nick Rodricks, chief of the Baltimore County Bureau of Solid Waste Management, who assumed the position after the county’s implementation of the paper bag rule.
Rodricks said the quality of the county’s compost has vastly improved, and the decline of yard waste collections — about 18% fewer tons compared to 2021 — has been much lower than expected.
“Even if it went down by 50%, I’d still be happier with that because of the product we can make,” Rodricks said. “To me, that [18%] is pretty good when you’re doing something countywide and getting people to make a big change.”
Rodricks said the county can’t account for the 18% drop; it’s possible people got deterred from brown-bagging their waste due to bad weather, for example, instead of the new mandate. Some people also may be composting their yard waste on their own as awareness about its benefit grows.
Before the change became official, Rodricks helped distribute some of the free paper bags for residents to pick up at libraries, recreation centers and county facilities; there were about 387,000 given out in total. Rodricks thinks the one-time distribution raised awareness and helped county residents adjust to the new rule and suspects more people will make the switch to paper bags over time. He said reusable bins aren’t being used due to the overwhelming quantity of yard waste typically disposed.
‘A bumpy road in the beginning’
In Howard County, which has offered curbside yard waste collection for decades, officials banned the use of plastic bagging in 2015, said Mark DeLuca, the county’s deputy director of public works.
County contractors hired to dispose of the trimmings began complaining about the plastic bags getting caught up in their machines, DeLuca said, prompting county officials to rethink how residents could gather up their waste. They settled on paper bags and reusable bins as alternatives to plastic, he said. “But it certainly was a bumpy road in the beginning.”
Residents complained about the extra charge as well as the composition of paper bags, which can rip and tear, especially when left out in the rain. DeLuca credits Howard County government officials for universally supporting the plastic ban in spite of the complaints, engaging residents and business owners with education and outreach, and community members for eventually embracing it.
Alan Wilcom, Howard County’s assistant administrator in the Bureau of Environmental Services, said collection tons fluctuate in years with major weather events, such as droughts or heavy rain. But officials haven’t noticed much change in collection volumes in the 10-year period that included the plastic bag ban.
Citing active resistance from some counties to implement separated yard trimmings program, Myers, of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, recommended regionalizing some of the composting work and logistics to reduce the burden on certain jurisdictions, “so it’s not just an internal problem for each region to have to solve,” he said.
Myers, who lives in Anne Arundel County, composts on his own, but still thinks it’s important for state and local governments to centralize the service. He sees potential for a future large-scale “green” jobs recruitment effort and for a statewide education campaign that gets residents excited about the opportunities. He also thinks local governments can take steps to help people transition to a new way of waste disposal — such as providing paper bags and bins for free.
“You can’t expect people to make changes on their own,” he said. “It’s about having a new future, and asking: Can you see yourself having a part in it?”