The smell of trouble Tri-county venture: Odors at new composting plant must be eliminated.

January 02, 1996

COMPOSTING, ONE OF the more politically palatable and environmentally sound waste disposal methods, is in danger of becoming a dirty word as a result of troubles at a month-old regional yard waste disposal operation just over the Anne Arundel border in Howard County. Officials in Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties need to pressure the Maryland Environmental Service, which manages the facility, to fix them promptly -- not just for the sake of nearby residents, but also to pre-empt thoughtless opposition to all forms of composting at a time when local governments need alternatives to landfills and incineration.

The major problem with this yard-waste plant is odor. This is not unheard of; though yard waste operations generally have been well-received nationwide, odor is the most frequently cited objection. At the Dorsey site, the stench stems from the contractor's failure to turn and aerate the yard waste properly. Browning-Ferris Industries is supposed to compost the waste in long, low rows called windrows, which are easily turned and dry out quickly with little odor. Anyone skeptical of this simple technology should remember that a forest doesn't smell after the leaves have fallen in autumn; leaves only smell when they pile up, become wet and rot. That's what's happening at the composting plant, where BFI has piled the leaves into mountains. The participating counties need to demand that MES have this stopped, even if that means terminating BFI's contract.

As rocky as this plant's first month has been, it would be unfair to write off composting prematurely. Start-up glitches are not uncommon with such operations. It would also be a mistake to oppose solid-waste composting plants, such as the one Anne Arundel Executive John G. Gary wants to build, based on experiences at a yard-waste plant. The two operations are completely different. Yard-waste is degraded outdoors using the same methods employed in any backyard compost heap. Solid-waste composting, which reduces all biodegradable trash to dirt, is more technologically advanced and occurs indoors with filters to eliminate odor and pollution. This is a viable waste reduction method that shouldn't be overlooked simply because of knee-jerk objections to a dissimilar facility that may yet prove a success.

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