Times Staff Photo/Randy Litzinger Scott MacDonald holds fresh compost in his hand made from lawn clippings. The compost fertilizer that can be sold to a garden center, and cuts down on the amount of lawn clipping going into a landfill.

Late spring is one of the busiest times of the year for Prince William County’s Balls Ford Road Composting Facility, where grass clippings, leaves and other yard waste slowly rots into a rich compost that’s eventually sold to landscapers and garden centers across the region.

Each year, about 35,000 tons of yard waste makes its way from area homes and businesses to the 12 huge “windrows” at the Manassas-area facility, which has been in operation since the 1990s. Windrows are long mounds -- about 320 feet long and 20 feet high – where the yard waste cooks for seven to 12 months into compost, a fine, black, nutrient-rich natural fertilizer.

Balls Ford is the only county-owned, commercial-scale composting facility in Northern Virginia. It accepts grass and yard waste from Fairfax County, Falls Church and the City of Manassas.

But if you live in Prince William County, your grass clippings and leaves aren’t likely making their way to the Balls Ford facility unless you bring them there yourself.

That’s because unlike most of Northern Virginia, Prince William County does not yet require yard waste to be separated. As a result, most of the grass clippings, leaves and small branches generated by Prince William’s roughly 148,000 households are still mostly going into the county landfill.

And that’s a problem the county is trying to fix, says Scott MacDonald, recycling program manager with Prince William County’s Solid Waste Division.

An all-waste audit the county conducted in 2013 and 2014 determined that 70 percent of what’s going into the landfill can be composed or recycled, MacDonald said. About 13 to 15 percent of the landfill stream is yard waste. In other words, too much of what’s going into the landfill shouldn’t be.

“That’s not sustainable,” MacDonald said of the findings, noting the landfill, which opened in the 1970s, is slated to be full as early as 2065. At 1,200 acres, the county is not likely to ever find a site for another landfill, which means the life of the current landfill must be stretched as long as possible.

“We want to make sure we utilize that resource and only put things in there that need to go in there,”

Partnership with Fauquier company to add capacity

The county has long wanted to direct more yard waste to the Balls Ford, but at only about 17 acres the facility lacks the capacity to compost all the county’s yard waste. Because of that, the county can't yet require residents to separate yard waste from the rest of their garbage, MacDonald said.

To address the problem, the county first tried to buy more land to expand the composting facility but gave up on that idea about five years ago after failing to find a suitable parcel. Now, the county is working with Fauquier County-based Freestate Farms in a public-private partnership to expand composting capacity through a more efficient, mechanical process.

Freestate, which has held a contract to operate the existing composting facility since 2015, plans to break ground this July on a new $10 million composting facility that will use newer technology to compost not only yard waste but also food waste, something for which there is a significant unmet demand, mostly from grocery stores trying to get rid of food waste responsibly, said Doug Ross, a chief executive with the company.

In addition, the new operation will allow the Balls Ford to process about 175,000 tons of yard waste annually, up from the current capacity of about 40,000 to 50,000 tons, Ross said.

The process will also work faster, allowing the compost to be finished in about three months’ time instead of seven to 12, Ross said.

The expectation is that the new facility will process the county’s estimated 60,000 to 70,000 tons of yard waste and food waste (each) as well as yard and food waste from other jurisdictions. The facility will continue to accept yard waste while the new process comes online, which is expected to occur sometime in 2018, Ross said.

“With the construction of the new facility, we will be able to ensure the capacity to handle all of Prince William County’s [organic] waste and we will have additional capacity for other jurisdictions and private entities in the region,” Ross said.

The county currently pays Freestate about $32 a ton to process unbagged yard waste and $34 a ton to process what arrives in plastic bags, a nuisance that complicates the process. The excavators that churn the piles break up the bags into small pieces, which then must be filtered out of the compost piles, which takes extra time and money.

The county collects tipping fees from haulers  that bring yard waste to the Balls Ford facility. The county also maintains a “trash trade” agreement with Fairfax County whereby Fairfax takes some of Prince William’s waste at their Lorton trash facility in exchange for their bringing yard waste to Balls Ford, MacDonald said.

Freestate Farms also sells the finished compost and mulch it makes at the facility in bulk to both homeowners and garden centers. Ross would not disclose how much the company makes on the products annually, but says they always sell out of the compost.

Ordinance changes underway

The county is working to update its refuse ordinance with the help of a citizen advisory committee, MacDonald said. Getting yard waste out of the landfill is one of the main goals of the effort because it will significantly boost the county’s recycling rate, which was has stagnated in recent years and dipped to about 33 percent in 2015.

The only way to ensure yard waste stays out of the landfill is to require that it be separated from trash heading to the landfill. The board of supervisors will likely consider that option well as other changes later this year, MacDonald said.

In the meantime, homeowners who want to keep their own grass clippings out of the landfill are encouraged to take them to either the Balls Ford Composting Facility, at 13000 Balls Ford Road, or to the county landfill on Va. 234, where the county maintains a drop-off point for yard waste that is then transferred to Balls Ford. It’s best to put the waste either in paper bags or compostable plastic bags, which makes the process more efficient.

Reach Jill Palermo at jpalermo@fauquier.com

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