Science of the city: Where does everything go after Hyattsville throws it ‘away’?
By Paul Ruffins
In September 1946, The American City magazine reported that the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission’s new trash incinerator in nearby Bladensburg “combines style with utility.” Seventy-five years ago, the commission provided municipal waste services as well as clean water. Today, most Hyattsville residents would vigorously oppose a huge incinerator being built nearby. But between 1940 and 1950, urban areas like New York, Los Angeles and Prince George’s County were building them as fast as possible.
They were considered an improvement over municipal dumps. In a 2009 report, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) noted, “The historic placement of landfills and open burning dumps was for the most part unregulated prior to the 1950s. Most towns, farms and industries had areas set aside for the disposal of waste. The sites were often nothing more than a wetland, riverbank or ravine on the edge of the town or property and often as not waste was collected and burned in place.”
MDE identified that at least 13 dumps or landfills have existed, over time, in Prince George’s County — likely a low estimate. There were incinerators in Bladensburg, Laurel and Lyttonsville, as well.
Trash and bulk waste
Today, Hyattsville, as a medium-sized incorporated city, uses its own trash trucks and city employees to provide curbside and bulk trash pickup.
Household trash and bulk waste go to the county’s huge 850-acre Brown Station Road Sanitary Landfill, which opened in 1968 and is 2.5 miles northwest of Upper Marlboro. The site’s original 148 acres, used for actual disposal, met the requirements of the 1965 Solid Waste Disposal Act. The site had a system of pipes to collect the gases (primarily methane) generated by decomposing food, leaves and household chemicals.
Over time, the county has expanded Brown Station and upgraded its facilities to meet ever more stringent Environmental Protection Agency requirements, particularly those concerning groundwater pollution.
A second section of Brown Station opened in 1992, with systems to monitor and handle the toxic leachate from rainwater filtering through the waste.
The county landfill’s biggest challenge is being overrun by the county’s growing population and mountains of plastic and packaging. As of 2017, when Brown Station renewed its 10-year permit, nine of the 11 cells in the second section had already been closed. The landfill is almost full, and the county applied for a permit to open a third section.
Higher tipping fees, up from $59 to $70 per ton, will kick in Oct. 1, in part to promote composting (which costs $45 per ton) and recycling ($25 per ton).
Leaves, yard waste and food scraps
Before the Clean Air Act was passed, in 1970, most people simply burned their leaves and yard waste. With the act in place, municipalities began to collect yard waste and send it to the landfill, which created its own problems.
In the early 1990s, the county opened the Prince George’s Organics Composting Facility to turn thousands of tons of leaves and yard waste into mulch and its popular Leafgro compost, which the county sells in retail stores to offset costs.
In 2013, the county began experimenting with composting food scraps and yard waste. This required a more complex process to control odors and deter animals. The materials are ground up and placed into long rows called windrows inside a Gore-Tex enclosure. Air is pumped into the piles to reduce the production of greenhouse gases, and the rows are turned and watered to maintain the proper temperature and humidity to reach 130-160 F for at least 15 days. The project’s success has made it the largest on the East Coast. The materials it handles would otherwise end up in a landfill or contaminate curbside recycling. Instead, the resulting compost, Leafgro Gold, is a best seller.
Hyattsville is ahead of the curve on composting because it offers residents free curbside pickup. The city also makes its own leaf mulch, which is simpler than making compost. According to an email from Cindy Zork, the city’s public information officer, “Leaves are ground at a nearby facility into mulch and returned to the City for processing. The City then uses them for landscaping purposes and distributes piles to City parks for residents’ use.”
Single-stream recycling and hazardous waste
In 1993, the county embraced recycling and created the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) in Capitol Heights. In 2007, the MRF was converted to accommodate sorting processes for the county’s new single-stream program, in which residents put all their recyclables into one container. The program uses a complex system of conveyors, magnets, compressed air and optical readers to sort out the most valuable commodities: aluminum and steel cans, newspapers, cardboard, glass and various plastic containers.
Hyattsville does not collect its own single-stream recyclables but is one of eight municipalities that partner with the county to collect recyclables through a commercial hauler.
The city also contracts with Maryland Environmental Services to pick up the used oil, antifreeze and other household hazardous waste dropped off at its public works site (4633 Arundel Place). Clean antifreeze is usually filtered and reused. Used motor oil is often burned as fuel in cement kilns or added to asphalt to pave roads.
In 1946, we welcomed a “stylish” new incinerator. Today, we realize there is no magical place called “away.” Everything we toss ends up in our, or someone else’s, air, water or community.