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Howard County Food Scraps Program

Howard County’s newest program Food Scraps Curbside Collection is finding success, one neighborhood at a time. Howard County is the first in the Mid-Atlantic region to offer a municipal curbside food scraps collection program, and since its official launch in 2011, the program has grown to include selected collection zones in four major Howard County communities.    

Howard County has been working on improving and encouraging residential recycling for several years, launching the single-stream recycling curbside collection program in 2008. On the heels of the success of this program and recognizing that it was only the first step to reducing waste destined for the landfill, the County decided it was time to take on the next challenge: food scraps curbside collection.

To study the feasibility of a country-wide program, Howard County’s Recycling Division conducted a six month pilot program in 2010, asking for volunteers in a selected Ellicott City neighborhood to participate in the study. Interested residents were provided with a wheeled lidded container as well as an indoor collection container, given instructions on handling the collection, and asked to record their experiences. Go to Food Scraps Collection page for a copy of the report on the finding.

The lessons learned from the study helped in the next phase, the official launch in September 2011, which included collection zones in parts of Elkridge and Ellicott City. The program has since expanded to include additional collection zones in parts of Clarksville and Columbia. For residents that are interested in the program, the County set up an online tool where they can see if they are eligible, and if not, volunteer to participate once the program does reach their areas. This data also gives the County an idea of where the interest is, which helps in future planning.

With any new program, there are challenges. The first is to help people understand that this is not a new collection, but rather a different way to handle food scraps. Instead of putting food scraps in the trash or down the garbage disposal, residents put the scraps into a separate container that will be picked up with their regularly scheduled recycling. The food scraps are then composted thus reducing landfill trash and greenhouse gases, saving costs on trash removal and processing, and providing enriched compost for local communities.

“What we found is that about 25% of what residents set out for trash is materials that can be diverted for composting” Gemma Evans, Recycling Coordinator, Bureau of Environmental Services-Recycling Division

Another challenge is educating residents on the collection process particularly how to best manage food scraps in the kitchen and exactly what can be included. Other concerns that arose during the pilot program were how to handle possible odors and how to avoid attracting insects/rodents. Reminding residents that meat, fish and dairy should still be placed in the regular garbage has helped allay some concerns. An online FAQs page is available on the County website where residents can find answers to these questions as well as other tips and suggestions.

One of the greatest upsides to the program is that because food scraps are being added to an existing collection stream (yard trim), there is no need for additional collection vehicles (great for the county) or additional collection days (awesome for residents). An added plus for residents is that the yard trim can be mixed in with the scraps.

So where does all this go? As Gemma Evans, Recycling Coordinator for Howard County, tells us “you can’t pick it up if you don’t have a place to put it down.” Initially, the County worked with private companies, but as of March 2013, a pilot composting facility opened at Alpha Ridge Landfill, a great venture that Howard County is very proud of. Now everything stays in right in the county. Click here to learn more about the new facility.

Although Howard County is pursuing curbside pickup of food scraps county-wide, it doesn’t want to discourage backyard composting, and continues to provide instructions and resources for residents who prefer to do their own composting (click here to learn more). But for residents that don’t have the time, resources or desire for backyard composting, this is a great option.