County leaders, community partners and business owners gathered at Westfield Montgomery Mall on Thursday morning to announce the expansion of a commercial food scraps recycling program.
They also announced a trial food scraps recycling program for one neighborhood in Silver Spring and one in Potomac. Adriana Hochberg, the county’s climate change officer and acting director of the county’s Department of Environmental Protection, said that program will serve 850 households in each neighborhood.
Eileen Kao, chief of the waste reduction and recycling section of the county’s Department of Environmental Protection, said in an interview that the commercial expansion includes multiple businesses in Westfield Montgomery mall.
Montgomery County Public Schools is also participating in the program — at the Division of Food and Nutrition Services in Gaithersburg and the Carver Educational Services Center in Rockville.
Overall, more than 20 partners countywide are currently participating or have participated in the food scraps program, ranging from restaurants to country clubs to catering services.
Kao said the county offers those partners technical support through a 12- to 18-month program, in which they provide data on how much food waste they are diverting from the landfill.
That food waste gets sent to the Western Branch Composting Facility in Upper Marlboro, where it gets turned into Leafgro Gold, a mix of food scraps and yard waste that can be used to improve soil and plant health.
The county covers the shipping and processing fees, Kao said.
“Those are inducements or incentives also to entice these partners to work with us and try to do this,” she said. “We troubleshoot if there are any issues. … We really want them to succeed and have really strong programs.”
After they finish and “graduate” from the county program, they hopefully will work with private-sector companies to continue recycling food scraps, Kao said. That includes Kenwood Country Club in Bethesda and Qiagen, a molecular diagnostics, applied testing, academic and pharmaceutical research company with locations in Germantown and Gaithersburg.
County Council Member Andrew Friedson said during Thursday’s event that there not only is an environmental reason for businesses to join the program, but also an economic reason. There’s a market for Leafgro Gold, and an incentive for businesses to save money through diverting what would otherwise be trash into the program, Friedson added.
The food scraps program started in late May 2020, Kao said. Through the pandemic, restaurants, catering services and other businesses have had much less food waste than pre-pandemic, she added.
Annually, the Department of Environmental Protection’s Recycling and Resource Management Division estimates “124,000 tons of food waste, or food scraps, are disposed of in the waste stream annually in Montgomery County.” Of that, about 68,000 are from businesses and organizations.
Since the program started, the county’s program has recycled more than 625,000 pounds of food scraps. The county calculates how much food scraps are being lifted from 35-gallon containers into two food scrap trucks with tipping scales. The trucks travel countywide.
Kao said the program could expand in the coming years, through more partners. Montgomery County Public Schools is also looking at potentially working with the Department of Environmental Protection to create another food scraps program in schools.
The commercial program also could expand as businesses become more active as they emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, she said.
“We don’t have a crystal ball, but as we come out of COVID, we don’t know how quick we’re going to get back to a steady normal state, and we don’t know exactly what that normal state is going to shape up as,” Kao said. “But this has huge potential, because look what we’ve been able to do, given the circumstances.”
County Executive Marc Elrich said in an interview that the program is a “huge part” of reducing waste countywide and meeting the county’s climate goals.
He said a report will be finalized in January looking at the economics of creating “separation facilities” for food waste or other recycling and trash streams.
Steve Bohnel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org