In push to 'co-compost,' waste makes haste


September 15, 1996|By MIKE BURNS

THE NEVER-ENDING search for a panacea to our trash disposal dilemma now leads down the road of composting.

All other magical solutions having fallen victim to reality, composting (or co-composting, as it is called today) now appears to be the method of choice for Carroll County.

The dog-and-pony shows in distant states evidently persuaded a majority of Carroll's Three Wise Men to favor co-composting to process the county's solid waste in the next century.

A much shorter junket to Howard County might have dispelled that notion of composting as a magic bullet. The noise and noisome odors of the regional composting facility in Dorsey that opened last November have been a constant problem for neighbors. They have filed a $22 million lawsuit and zoning code appeals. The plant has barely made a dent in the amount of waste dumped by the three partner counties in their landfills.

Not that the new composting facility in Cobb County, Ga., visited by Carroll Commissioners Richard T. Yates and Donald I. Dell is without problems, either. It has been beset with clogged air filters, foul smells in the neighborhood and an unexplained fire when it shut down for repairs only two months after opening.

That's a computer-operated plant, which Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown and Mr. Yates believe is preferable to the labor-intensive composting facility in Tennessee that Brown visited.

Mr. Dell, the usual odd-man-out commissioner, still leans toward incineration, or waste-to-energy disposal as it is politely termed. He's tried to convince two boards of commissioners, even though a citizen task force in 1994 recommended against incineration because of environmental and health concerns.

The county Public Works Department is an avid fan of co-composting. A facility handling 300 tons of the county's refuse daily would prolong the life of the Northern Landfill (Carroll's only public dump) by more than 30 years. Plus, the $30 million plant would save the county millions of dollars in opening new disposal cells within the landfill.

In fact, the department's enthusiasm has doubled over the summer. In June, it was supporting a $15 million co-composting plant that would process 150 tons of garbage a day.

It has been evident for years that the Northern Landfill east of Westminster was going to run out of usable space: Environmental concerns about underground seepage and surface runoff of pollutants are as much a limitation as actual acreage.

The proposed co-composting facility would be located at Northern Landfill. If it could live up to its billing, the co-composting operation could use 70 percent of the garbage now being buried there. Working side by side, transportation and separation and maintenance costs could be minimized.

Co-composting uses microbes to break down waste chemically into reusable organic products such as mulch and fertilizer. The process obviously requires waste separation, though not as much as effective recycling operations.

A major problem is what to do with the processed material. Efforts to dispose of these end products have proven problematic in other places. The demand by home gardeners is never as great as expected. Government landscapers can use just so much of the material.

Despite the enthusiasm for Bedminster Bioconversion's Georgia co-composting plant, it has yet to prove itself reliable, efficient and economical.

It is all well and good to say that we'll have all the problems fixed by the time Carroll begins to build its model. But that has been a frequent delusion of waste management planners for decades. Look at Baltimore's pyrolysis plant and the Hawkins Point incinerator, monuments to failed dreams. Harford County's plan

for year-round energy production at its Magnolia incinerator is still unfulfilled.

The turbulent markets for recycled materials have shown that method of waste disposal to be typically uneconomical and have even led to the dumping of unwanted recyclables.

Yes, we have to do something with our trash, which averages about a ton per person each year. We can't ignore it. But let's listen to experts with a broader perspective and experience before making this next leap of faith.

A new caution

The Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority, a regional quasi-public agency that promotes waste management projects, urged jurisdictions this spring to proceed cautiously in building co-composting facilities.

It stressed the need to establish firm markets for end products. And the maximum size recommended for an effective facility was smaller than that being proposed by Carroll officials.

The authority also implied that making a new facility a "regional" one is no magic formula, either.

Carroll has now joined the Northeast authority, paying its $25,000 dues in preparation for deciding the future of this county's waste disposal.

It would be well advised to listen closely and remember that haste makes waste.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 9/15/96

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