The science of the city: Where do things go when we throw them away?
By Paul Ruffins
Curious about where things go when we throw them away, here in College Park? I recently asked Robert Marsili, director of College Park’s Department of Public Works, to fill me in. “Every city or town in Prince George’s County handles its solid waste a little differently,” he said. “Local jurisdictions evolved different policies over time.” But for the county’s first 250 years, the way it handled trash didn’t evolve very much.
In a 2009 report, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) noted that “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 Hyattsville, Laurel and Lyttonsville, as well.
Regional concerns about water quality emerged earlier than worries about air pollution or waste disposal. In 1918, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) was established when the District threatened to sue Prince George’s and Montgomery counties for discharging raw sewage into the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.
Fifty years later, in 1968, the county turned its attention to waste disposal by closing smaller local dumps and opening the 850-acre Brown Station Road Sanitary Landfill (BSRSL), in Largo. The site’s original 148 acres, used for actual disposal, met the requirements of the Solid Waste Disposal Act, which Congress passed in 1965. 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 the BSRSL and upgraded its facilities to meet ever more stringent EPA requirements, particularly those concerning groundwater pollution. A second section of the BSRSL opened in 1992, with systems to monitor and handle the toxic leachate from rainwater filtering through the waste. This section also has a facility for hazardous waste collections.
The Clean Air and Clean Water acts, which Congress passed in the early 1970s, were both designed to protect the environment, but these acts placed more pressure on landfills. Before the Clear Air Act was passed, in 1970, most people simply burned their leaves and yard waste. With the act in place, municipalities began to collect and yard waste and send it to the landfill.
As the county’s population soared, and as we became increasingly dependent on single-use plastics and packaging, the BSRSL’s facilities proved to be outmoded and inadequate, and the county scrambled for alternatives. In the early 1990s, it opened the Prince George’s Organics Composting Facility (PGOCF) yard waste processing 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 1993, Prince George’s 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 recycling program. In 2013, the PGOCF began composting food scraps and paper, becoming the largest organic composting operation on the East Coast — but these recycling efforts weren’t enough to offset landfill use. As of 2017, when the landfill renewed its 10 year permit, nine of the 11 cells in section B had been filled and were closed. Prince George’s County applied for a permit to open a new section at the BSRSL and does not accept waste from outside the county. Higher tipping fees, up from $59 to $70 per ton, will kick in on October 1, 2021, in part to promote recycling. The tipping fee at the PGOCF is $45 per ton, and the MRF charges $25 per ton.
Marsili explained that the name of the game is to do everything possible to avoid sending trash to the landfill. “When DPW picks up bulk trash, we sort out any scrap metal right here to make a small amount of money by selling it to a local recycler and to save on tipping fees. For [food] composting, we use a contractor who has the right equipment to pick up our food waste.”
College Park avoids some tipping fees by producing its own SMARTLEAF® compost from leaves and yard waste — it’s the only municipality in the county that does this. Making this compost is a complex operation that requires a good deal of staff training, including regular certification of supervisors. And before SMARTLEAF® can be sold, it has to be tested by a chemist. The composting process also requires a lot of equipment: vacuum trucks, a front-end loader, a grinder and a turner to mix and oxygenate the piles.
The city’s certified compost master, Prao Jansorn explained the process: “We make it by combining the leaves we collect between November and January, with soft garden waste such as small branches, vines, and grass clippings. It has to be properly turned and watered so that the internal temperature reaches at least 131 degrees for 15 days. Then we screen it to remove anything over half an inch [in any dimension].”
DPW reports that the program has been a big success. And it’s a money maker — sales largely cover costs. During the last fiscal year, the City of College Park sold 2900 cubic yards of SMARTLEAF® compost, at $28.00 a yard, and 882 cubic yards of mulch, at $12.00 a yard.
Janet McCaslin, the city’s recycling coordinator, points out that in recycling, breaking even can be a win; she noted that it’s a 46-mile round trip from College Park to the PGOCF. “Making compost ourselves means we avoid a lot of wear and tear on our trucks, and it saves gallons and gallons of diesel fuel,” she said.
College Park is evolving in the right direction, indeed.