COLLEGE PARK — Prince George’s County is the home to one of the largest food waste composting facilities in the United States of America.
That prompted The University of Maryland College Park and the Maryland Environmental Service (MES) to develop an innovative partnership that benefits the environment.
In partnership with the county, MES operates an organic composting facility in Upper Marlboro which is one of the largest in the nation, said MES CEO and Chairman Roy McGrath. There, they compost tons of food each year.
“The numbers behind it are pretty staggering,” he said. “We started six years ago processing about 3,000 tons per year and next year, six years later, we will process 35,000 tons. It’s been a 10-fold increase over the last six years diverting that waste from landfills, so it’s really six million pounds of food waste that are not going into landfills as a result of this change. That’s six million pounds of food waste that’s not going into landfills.”
According to the Prince George’s County Department of the Environment, the county produces 1.6 million tons of waste per year and the yard and food waste is composted at the Western Branch Organics Composting Facility.
“It prevents methane generation when the material doesn’t go to the landfill, and when it goes to the landfill that’s when you get that methane,” said Steve Birchfield, operation supervisor at the Western Branch Organic Composting Facility. “Active composting does not generate methane; it also creates a renewable resource in the form of the compost itself.”
According to Birchfield, the facility is capable of composting 32,500 tons of food waste each year.
“The more waste we can get out of landfills the better for a lot of environmental reasons, but one of the things particularly innovative and successful about the program that we have at the Prince George’s County Organic Facility is the closed-loop partnership that we’ve built with the University of Maryland College Park,” McGrath said.
The school’s composting program, in general, began in about 2011, according to Assistant Director of University of Maryland Dining Services Bart Hipple. They soon began searching for someone local to partner with to grow the program and found MES. The partnership started a couple of years ago.
“It’s very close and very local,” said Hipple. “The pick-up and delivery options are seamless and work very well for us. So it’s a great partnership.”
The closed-loop partnership, McGrath said, involves taking food waste from the UMD dining halls and composting it along with yard waste to turn it into fertilizer. The Terp Farm then buys the fertilizer and uses it to grow fruits and vegetables. UMD produces 28 tons of food waste per week, he said.
The school has composting stations in the three dining halls, and the composting bins are taken out and replaced as often as they need to sometimes once a week or twice a week depending on the dining hall and what their needs are.
“The material to be composted is taken out to the Prince George’s composting facility, and they do their magic with it there,” Hipple said. “A couple of times a year we get a big pile of it at Terp Farm where we use it on the crops that we grow there. We have a five-acre organic farm that is part of the research farm that the University has in Upper Marlboro.”
McGrath called in one of the more “innovative” approaches to tackling food waste.
Hipple described two significant impacts that composting programs at a large facility such as a university can have.
“One is, of course, the impact on the environment, minimizing the impact of stuff we put in landfills is really important now more than ever,” Hipple said. “We have signs here on campus that say remember there is no ‘away.’ When you throw things away, it’s not going away, it’s going to a landfill, and we need to stop doing that as much as we possibly can.”
The second is that it allows people to make composting a habit. Universities are very important in people’s lives when they are learning and creating patterns that are going to continue throughout their 20s and 30s and maybe even beyond, Hipple said. If they begin composting regularly now, they are more likely to do it later down the line.
“My biggest suggestion would be to start with schools and go from there,” said Birchfield. “Kids are very adamant about learning and doing thing and being hands-on, speaking as a father myself. If you get the younger minds doing it, by the time they get to their younger adult years, that’s normal to them.”
MES has several partnerships with other institutions in the Washington, D.C. area. There is a high level of demand for organic waste but it’s not exactly a very developed system, McGrath said. But there is an opportunity to grow the system and encourage more people to collect food waste.
“It’s really a chronic national issue. If we could recover just a third of the food waste nationally, it would feed the food insecure population. So it’s important environmentally and a really socially important opportunity.”