Is food College Park’s final frontier in recycling?
By Paul Ruffins
To most homeowners, College Park’s recyclables include bottles, cans, newspapers, a range of metals, and cardboard and certain plastic containers — all of which go into our city’s single-stream recycling. But Justen Garrity, president of Veteran Compost, which recycles food waste like used grounds from Vigilante Coffee, takes a broader view. He explains that within the industry, what is recyclable is often defined by an evolving set of economic, political and moral judgements: What is an item’s resale value? How much would it cost to simply discard it instead of recycling? Are the cheaper ways of disposing of an item dangerous or illegal, or perhaps considered immoral or against company policy? And who is being paid to collect items?
“People pay us to pick up food scraps for composting to support veterans, or because they believe global warming makes it immoral to put food into landfills,” Garrity said. “Some clients are part of West Coast tech companies with a corporate policy of zero waste.”
A new bulk trash ordinance went into effect in College Park on July 1, limiting the total number of bulk items that the city will collect as well as the frequency of collections. Under the ordinance, the city also charges fees for collecting large appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines, and some smaller things such as tires — all items that used to be collected at no additional charge. By shifting the costs of disposing these items to homeowners and landlords (who may pass these costs along to renters), the city council hopes that residents will recycle more items and send fewer to the landfill.
Former councilmembers Stephanie Stullich (who is a board member of Streetcar Suburbs Publishing, which publishes The College Park Here & Now) and P. J. Brennan strongly supported the measure. “We as a society produce too much waste,” Stullich said. “People need a financial incentive to think about changing their behavior.”
Another shift in local recycling efforts occurred in September 2019, when the University of Maryland (UMD) stopped accepting glass bottles in its campus-wide, mixed-container recycling. The price of commingled glass had fallen so far that the recycling company used by the university stopped accepting it. In September 2020, UMD resumed recycling bottles, but not if they’re commingled with plastic items; bottles now have to be deposited separately in purple containers on campus. They are then shipped to Fairfax County, Va., where they are ground into gravel or sand for use in construction.
One issue that can be confusing is whether all containers must be cleaned before they are recycled. The city’s website states, “Clean and wash out your food containers — too much food contamination or food scraps can contaminate the entire load of recycling causing it to go to the landfill. If that pizza box is looking a bit too greasy, then it’s best to throw it out.”
Food contamination attracts insects and vermin. It can also seep into mixed paper and cardboard, which are two of the few materials that are profitable to recycle. Wet paper doesn’t sort properly and may end up discarded. And for years it was thought that food residue on paper or cardboard would reduce the strength of new products made from those fibers, so billions of pizza boxes have ended up in landfill each year — and hungry students in a college town contribute dramatically to that outcome.
Both the Sierra Club and Domino’s Pizza have been touting recent research showing that new machinery is better at screening out cheese, making pizza boxes recyclable (see sierraclub.org/sierra/yes-you-can-recycle-your-pizza-boxes). Nevertheless, College Park still sends these boxes to landfill.
Janet McCaslin, College Park’s recycling coordinator, notes that the current per-ton tipping fees at Prince George’s facilities in Capitol Heights are $59 for landfill, $45 for organic waste composting and $27 at the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), where single stream recyclables are sorted for resale around the world.
According to McCaslin, “The MRF is cracking down on the quality of the recyclables it’s accepting. If the inspectors find that a load is contaminated, they reject it, and it has to go to the landfill, which costs more than twice as much. But the bigger problem is that when food or other organic matter decomposes in the low-oxygen environment of a landfill, it generates methane, a greenhouse gas about 25 times worse than carbon dioxide.”
The methane problem and high tipping fees have prompted College Park to compost leaves and yard waste, and the compost is then available to the public for purchase. The city grinds tree limbs into wood mulch, which is also for sale. Residents can also drop off food waste at the city’s public works department — the city sells food waste bins to residents for half of what non-residents would pay for them. The city sends food waste to the Prince George’s County organic recycling facility, which is one of the largest composting operations on the East Coast.
And McCaslin hopes to expand the city’s recycling efforts. “I’m hoping we can start picking up food scraps from households,” she said, “but first we have to get new trucks that won’t leak.”
As the recycling landscape changes, you can stay current by reviewing updates posted to the city’s website, collegeparkmd.gov, or signing up on the website to receive email notifications.