Baltimore has received $4 million of federal funding to build a composting facility at the city’s Eastern Sanitation Yard, which would accept organic waste such as food scraps and turn it into a fertilizer mixture.
Supporters say the East Baltimore facility would be the first of its kind to be managed by city government, calling it a meaningful step toward achieving the city’s “zero waste” goal.
The city applied for the funds from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and in its application, Baltimore pledged $4 million of its own money to help design and construct the new “Bowley’s Lane Composting Facility,” said Neil Shader, a spokesperson for the EPA’s mid-Atlantic region.
Construction likely won’t begin on the facility until 2025, Shader said.
The Baltimore Department of Public Works did not respond to questions about its plans.
According to its 10-Year Solid Waste Management Plan, Baltimore City already had plans to expand the Eastern Sanitation Yard along Bowleys Lane, near Moravia Road, to include a transfer station for trash trucks. According to an EPA fact sheet, the composting facility would be co-located with the new transfer station.
The compost facility would be run on solar power, according to the EPA’s fact sheet, which states that the facility would be able to process 12,000 tons of organic material annually, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 6,000 tons.
“It will take food waste and compost it in a controlled manner, diverting it from local landfills and reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with food rotting in an uncontrolled environment,” Shader said in a statement.
When it decomposes in landfills, organic waste contributes a large amount of methane pollution, a potent greenhouse gas. When they are incinerated, organic materials generate planet-warming carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide.
Composting food waste reduces the methane pollution, and anaerobic digestion captures it for reuse. In 2020, about 774,400 tons of food waste were disposed of in landfills or incinerators in Maryland, compared with 167,200 tons sent to composters and digesters, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.
The EPA said in a news release Friday that its Baltimore grant is part of the agency’s largest investment in recycling efforts in 30 years. Through the grant program, provided by the Biden administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure law, Baltimore and 24 other communities received a total of $73 million. State and territory governments also received $33 million worth of grant funds through the program, including Maryland, which received about $550,000 to bolster organics recycling efforts.
Currently, Baltimoreans can dump their own food scraps at a small number of designated drop-off sites around the city. But that waste is trucked about an hour away to the Prince George’s County Organics Composting Facility, one of the state’s few large-scale composting facilities, according to a Maryland Department of the Environment map.
There are also several community composting programs that collect food waste and companies that offer composting services to individual residents for a fee.
But Friday’s announcement that Baltimore would establish its own, larger-scale facility for transforming eggshells, coffee grounds and fruit peels into a useful agricultural product is seen as a big step forward for the local composting scene.
Marvin Hayes, the executive director of Baltimore Compost Collective — a youth-led nonprofit that composts at the Filbert Street Garden in Curtis Bay ― said he hopes the new facility will be a boon for local composters.
Hayes said he drives to the Prince George’s composting facility in Upper Marlboro once or twice each week to drop off extra materials that he doesn’t have room to compost at the Filbert Street Garden. So he hopes a new facility in Baltimore would save him a considerable amount of time.
He also hopes the new facility will raise awareness for the benefits of composting and bring the city closer to a residential pickup program for food scraps.
“I always said I wasn’t going to wait for the city to bring me to the table,” Hayes said. “But this is an opportunity to work with the city.”
Several Baltimore institutions and community groups submitted letters supporting the city’s grant application, laying out the need for Charm City to have its own destination for organic waste.
One came from leaders at local universities, including Coppin State, Johns Hopkins, Notre Dame of Maryland, Towson and the University of Maryland, Baltimore.
“Currently, anchor institutions who have the resources to manage a high-tonnage composting program, contract haulers to transport our food waste 40 miles to the Prince George’s County Organics Composting Facility at exceptional cost and additional greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution,” reads the letter. “A local, commercial compost facility would likely reduce costs making it more feasible for us to expand our programs.”
In 2021, Maryland legislators passed a law requiring certain large generators of food waste, such as higher education institutions, to separate their scraps for composting. But the law only applies to facilities within 30 miles of a compost facility with the capacity to handle their materials.
“There is concern among this group that because the Prince George’s County facility is a quasi-governmental facility it will prioritize in-county municipal and commercial haulers and would not have the capacity to receive material from our institutions, severely hindering our long-standing sustainability programs,” the universities said in the letter.
Among the community groups supporting Baltimore’s grant application was the South Baltimore Community Land Trust, a nonprofit that has continued to advocate for the city to turn away from its South Baltimore incinerator and divert waste from the incinerator by recycling and composting eligible materials.
In its letter, the land trust called for any new composting site to engage the host community in order to ensure it’s involved in the development and for the creation of agreements to protect the community from negative impacts.
“It’s an opportunity. It’s a breakthrough. But it’s a test to get it right,” said Greg Sawtell, the land trust’s Zero Waste Just Transition initiative director.
Compost facilities have at times attracted concerns from neighbors, including for their odors. But there are steps that compost operators can take to reduce foul smells. Maryland requires commercial compost facilities to submit plans for odor prevention and for responding to any complaints that arise.
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Earlier this year, a proposed commercial compost facility in Lothian was derailed by Anne Arundel County officials after concerns from residents and environmental groups, who mainly expressed worries about increased truck traffic and increased waste disposal in the area, which already hosts a landfill. The owner of the business, Veterans Compost, told The Capital Gazette that the reversal left his company with hundreds of thousands of dollars in sunk costs, but County Executive Steuart Pittman pledged to find the company a different site.
Jean Eckels, a longtime president of the Parkside Improvement Association, who lives close to the existing Public Works facility on Bowleys Lane, said she hadn’t heard yet about the city’s plans to expand it and add a composting facility.
“The city has a habit of not informing associations what they’re planning on doing,” said Eckels, who added that she recently retired from her post but couldn’t find a replacement to continue the organization.
Eckels, who has lived in her home for about 65 years, said the community hasn’t had many problems with the existing Bowleys Lane facility since the site was cleaned up and improved decades ago. Sometimes, when the drop-off site is closed, individuals leave trash near the entrance, but those usually are cleaned up quickly, Eckels said.
“Now everything is put in dumpsters. And so it’s a lot cleaner and less, shall we say, smelly,” Eckels said. “The people around here use it.”
Those same residents likely would benefit from a composting site, Eckels said, but she hopes the city explains more about its plans.