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Latest figures showed Wicomico County as Maryland's recycling leader, but Delmarva Now found that was based on a mistake and a surprising material. Jenna Miller, Salisbury Daily Times
That’s according to the Maryland Department of the Environment, whose latest figures showed the rural county had a recycling rate of more than 57% in 2017.
It has Wicomico beating previous leaders, more urban Prince George's and Montgomery counties, which warranted public celebration from some local officials.
Or maybe not, since Wicomico’s recycling isn’t from repurposing more plastic, glass, paper or metal. In fact, those all declined from the previous year, according to the MDE.
The positive spike is actually thanks to something the Eastern Shore has in abundance: chicken litter.
"It is one of the few things that we here on the 'Shore' have in our favor," Jennifer Albero, Wicomico’s recycling coordinator, wrote in an email.
In 2017, Wicomico claimed that its residents composted over 135,000 tons of chicken litter. That was 83% of the county's total recycling.
An investigation by Delmarva Now found that number is incorrect. The real number of composted chicken litter, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, is almost 19,000 tons — about a tenth of the original.
The MDE is still in the process of verifying this number. After questions about the error, the department told Wicomico County it would have to do a better job verifying the chicken litter numbers in the future.
The MDA said an inexperienced staff member provided the number to the county, and called it an “honest mistake." They made the county aware of the inaccuracy in February.
Inmates sort plastic recycling at the Wicomico recycling facility on Tuesday, March 26, 2019. Only plastics numbered one and two can be recycled in the county, because of challenges with the market and contamination, said local officials. (Photo: Jenna Miller)
But the mistake in reporting makes Wicomico appear as if it’s recycling more material across its jurisdiction than it is.
As a result, the county could be less likely to find new ways to improve that service, said Alex Truelove, director of the Zero Waste Campaign at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit.
"If you don't have an accurate rate, then you don't understand the problem," he said. "If you don't understand the problem, then you can't really fix it."
The county's total recycling rate drops from 58% to about 28% with the adjusted numbers, according to a Delmarva Now analysis. That's over the mandated rate of 20%, but it puts the county among the lowest in the state.
Recycling is an important strategy to deal with the growing amount of waste produced by Americans, experts say. Not only does it reduce trash but the repurposed items decrease the environmentally damaging extraction and processing of new materials.
Recycled paper doesn't require trees to be cut down, for example, and less ore is mined when some aluminum comes from recycled cans.
A pile of glass recycling waits to be sorted at the Wicomico recycling center on Tuesday, March 26, 2019. The market for recycled glass has been difficult in recent years, said local officials. (Photo: Jenna Miller)
Both Wicomico and Somerset began adding large quantities of chicken litter to their recycling numbers in 2017.
"Worcester was counting," said Weston Young, assistant director of administration for Wicomico County. "We said, 'Well, we should capture that data.' "
Without it, Wicomico would not meet the legally required rate. Neither would Somerset, where the addition of chicken litter helped the recycling rate rise from 4% to 36% in one year.
It would be in a similar situation to Dorchester County, where the recycling rate has stalled below 20% for two years in a row.
If a county consistently fails to recycle enough, the state can halt approval of local building permits for new construction.
Across the country, recycling programs are dealing with market fluxes and "wish-cycling." That's the term for trash that's optimistically put in the recycle bin, contaminating the other materials.
Maryland makes urban counties recycle at a higher rate than its rural ones. That’s because recycling is easier in urban areas. The density of population allows for cheaper curbside recycling programs and the ability to invest in high-volume recycling processing equipment.
“The market plays the biggest role in what we can recycle — we'd love to recycle everything," Albero said. “We’re doing it on a shoestring and hoping it flies.”
Unmanned recycling stations are also plagued with illegal dumping, said Mike McClung, Worcester County recycling coordinator. He said they empty trash from the stations multiple times a week.
For instance, residents frequently put plastic bags in the blue bins even though they aren't recyclable and cause problems for processors.
Inmates sort plastic recycling at the Wicomico recycling facility on Tuesday, March 26, 2019. They break and discard plastic bags as they come across the conveyor belt. "Grocery store bags are the bane of any landfill," said recycling coordinator Jennifer Albero. (Photo: Jenna Miller)
County officials say they have tried to capture more recycling numbers and reach out to local businesses in an effort to keep their rates on the rise.
"I don’t know if more people are recycling," McClung said. "I just know that we're able to get more information on it."
In his office sits a list of all the materials MDE has approved for inclusion in the recycling rate. He's highlighted some areas to to look into like oyster shells and batteries.
Mike McClung, recycling coordinator, gives a tour of the Worcester County Landfill in Snow Hill on Friday, April 19, 2019. "I want to do the best we can for our county," he said. (Photo: Jenna Miller)
Kaley Laleker, director of the MDE's Land and Materials Administration, said it is possible that counties are improving their counting instead of their actual rates but that's not what she has seen.
"Local governments have done a really good job with conducting outreach in their communities to get people to recycle and to explain what is and is not recyclable," she said.
Some programs have also had a difficult time selling recyclables because China, a major market, recently stopped or restricted their acceptance of many materials.
"It’s definitely a stress on us," said John Cooney, Dorchester landfill manager. "Now that there is no market, everybody is stuck with the mandates and it is really difficult to meet them."
The state of Maryland allows chicken litter to be counted as recycling as long as it is processed in some way. Typically that means it's either composted or used as a substrate for growing mushrooms in Pennsylvania. It's included in the recycling numbers category labelled "compostables."
Directly applying poultry manure to fields as fertilizer, a common practice on the Eastern Shore, is not considered recycling.
It’s a bit unusual that Maryland allows agricultural waste to be included with municipal solid waste in the state recycling rate. But across the U.S., there is no mandate to standardize recycling rates.
"We have 50 states and 10,000 communities with somewhat of a patchwork quilt approach to recycling," said David Biderman, CEO and executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America.
Most environmentalists agree that reusing chicken manure is good for the environment because it contains large amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen.
Those are two of the most concerning types of nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. Proper reuse of chicken litter saves it from washing into the bay, which can cause problems including algae blooms and dead zones.
In part because of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort, essentially all the chicken manure on the Eastern Shore is already repurposed in one way or another. Most of it is applied on farms as fertilizer, according to agricultural experts.
"We are not wasting any of it," said Jon Moyle, senior agent at the University of Maryland extension center. "We don’t have a manure problem. We have a logistic problem."
Barb Beebe, transfer station attendant, sorts recycling at the Worcester County Landfill in Snow Hill on Friday, April 19, 2019. The rural county works to keep the recycling rate rising by reaching out get recycling information from local businesses and farms. (Photo: Jenna Miller)
The issue rests in getting the manure to the right fields and keeping it from being used where there is already high phosphorus or the potential for runoff. But problematic chicken litter isn't being landfilled so it's not counted toward the county's waste totals.
And experts say processed chicken manure may not be any better for the environment than that applied to fields, as long as it's done properly.
Even with the new Phosphorus Management Plan, which strengthens restrictions on application of poultry litter, there are plenty of farms on the Eastern Shore where the fertilizer can be used.
Based off a typical manure application rate, there is twice as much land available as there is litter produced on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, according to the MDA.
"If you are going to a field that doesn’t have an issue with phosphorus it's certainly a good product to use," said Hans Schmidt, assistant secretary for resource conservation at the MDA.
In fact, there is so much demand for the product that Perdue Farms Inc. actually stopped its poultry litter composting efforts on the Lower Eastern Shore in 2018, according to a company spokesperson.
"Applying it on land that has low phosphorus is maybe actually a better method than shipping it to out of the watershed," said Schmidt.
Reuse of materials is environmentally beneficial but it’s not standard to include it with recycling, said a spokesperson for MDE. Other reused materials — like used clothes and electronics — don't count as recycling either, he said.
When the state passed its current recycling law in 2012, lawmakers upped the rate requirements but didn't change what counts as recycling in the state. That definition has been around since 1988, when Maryland instated its recycling program.
The state counts its recycling rate differently than the standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency. That's focused on municipal solid waste, or waste that comes from households and businesses. It excludes agricultural and industrial waste.
A pile of plastic waits to be sorted at the Wicomico recycling center on Tuesday, March 26, 2019. It's dotted with plastic bags, although they aren't recyclable. "Grocery store bags are the bane of any landfill," said recycling coordinator Jennifer Albero. (Photo: Jenna Miller)
But others said including chicken litter with municipal solid waste is confusing. Because polluting manure isn't typically including in the waste totals, they say it could skew the number.
"It was a disingenuous number to put out there,” said Dan Nees, senior research associate at the University of Maryland School for Public Policy. "It doesn’t mean that we don’t count it as recycling; we have to count it as a different type of recycling."
Chicken litter recycling numbers dropped for some places in 2018 because Perdue slowed its composting efforts. The company reported 368 tons to Worcester County in 2018, down from 7,700 tons in 2017.
Dave Mrgich, chief of the Waste Diversion Division for the MDE, contacted Wicomico County recently to talk about the chicken litter numbers, said a spokesperson for the department.
In the call, Mrgich stressed that the law states recycling must be diverted from the solid waste stream. That means chicken litter that isn't recycled is supposed to be thrown out, which isn't the case, according to agricultural experts.
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"Going forward, he (Mrgich) will be asking the county to verify that any amounts of poultry litter would, unless recycled, be disposed of in a refuse disposal system," Jay Apperson, spokesperson for the MDE, wrote in an email.
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