Montgomery County is already ahead of the game when it comes to reducing trash volume. About 60 percent of the county’s waste is recycled or composted, compared with a national average of about 35 percent. That still leaves a copious amount of food scraps, dirty diapers, plastic film and other detritus of daily life, all of which is sent by rail to the Montgomery County Resource Recovery Facility in rural Dickerson, which sits next to a coal-fired power plant in the county’s agricultural reserve.
The fires that burn the trash also power steam turbines that produce enough electricity for about 40,000 homes, which makes the incinerator a “waste-to-energy” facility. The leftover ash is sent to landfills. The Maryland General Assembly grappled with whether burning trash for energy was “green” in its last session, ultimately deciding that waste-to-energy plants should be eligible for the same subsidies as wind or solar operation. Environmental groups called the provision an “abhorrent loophole” in the state’s clean-energy bill.
In Montgomery, figuring out how to divert more garbage before it reaches the incinerator is the responsibility of Adam Ortiz, the newly appointed director of the county’s Department of Environmental Protection. “We can’t have a meaningful conversation about alternatives when we’re creating so much trash,” said Ortiz, who most recently was director of the environment department in Prince George’s County, where he won plaudits for boosting composting and other green programs.
Among the most possible candidates for diversion is food waste, which makes up about a third of the county’s garbage. Montgomery County already composts yard waste but does not have a facility to do the same with food scraps. Ortiz said he is looking at creating a composting program in Montgomery, starting with the commercial sector.