Sharon Barnes, viewing Erie County's future through green-colored glasses, says Barnes Nursery's plans to begin composting food waste will give the county high marks for environmental practices.
"We're only one of three places in Ohio that can take food waste right now," she said. "It would give us a chance to get out in front, to be leaders."
There's a snag though: Erie County businesses that generate food waste may not be allowed to take part.
Erie County officials say they may reject Barnes Nursery's application to accept county food waste, asserting the county's right to "flow control," or the ability to require all Erie County solid waste to be deposited in the Erie County landfill, where it generates tipping fees.
The county's stance may force Barnes to import food waste from outside Erie County.
"I'd prefer to give the county businesses the opportunity to do this before I go outside the county," said Barnes, who said Sawmill Creek, Kalahari and a restaurant along U.S. 250 all have expressed interest.
If the project goes forward, Erie County could tout the existence of a "Green Mile" along 250 that supports recycling, she said.
The Ohio EPA has weighed in, writing to Erie County's commissioners and asking them to allow local food waste composting to go forward.
In his Nov. 7 letter to commissioners, Ohio EPA director Chris Korleski pointed out that state law created solid waste districts in Erie County and other Ohio counties to encourage them to recycle trash as much as possible, reducing the amount placed in landfills.
"I cannot support a solid waste management district's use of its flow control authority in ways that seem to run counter to the statutory intent," Korleski wrote.
Barnes Nursery has been in business in Erie County for 57 years. Its average employment of 110 people varies seasonally from a high of 190 to about 30-40 in the winter.
The company runs a composting facility near Ohio 2 that was licensed in 1992. It recycles yard waste such as leaves and old Christmas trees, turning it into compost that Barnes sells to gardeners. Yard waste isn't covered by the county's flow control rules, so Barnes doesn't have to get permission to run the operation.
Barnes, sitting in her office in front of a large Sierra Club Earth Day poster promoting good environmental practices, said recycling programs have reduced the amount of aluminum cans, glass, plastics, paper, cardboard, electronics items and computers dumped into national landfills.
The federal EPA wants to further reduce dumping in landfills by encouraging the recycling of food waste, which includes not just actual food but also waxed cardboard, corrugated cardboard and cereal boxes, she said.
Barnes said her company obtained a $15,000 federal grant from Ohio to study food composting, then a $250,000 grant to buy the needed equipment. Each grant was matched 100 percent with money from Barnes, she said.
In its waiver application, Barnes offers to pay $5 per ton to the county, or up to $10,000 for the 2,000 tons.
Jack Meyers, sanitary engineer for Erie County, said he plans to put an item on the commissioners' agenda soon to ask them to rule on the waiver request.
"I'm leaning towards recommending that we do not approve it," Meyers said.
Meyers said he would like to wait until the county can complete a study of whether countywide food waste composting would be a good idea. The study will take at least a year to complete, he said.
"I think it is a good idea to compost organics," he said. "I'd like to do it in a way we can do it district wide, and it's economically viable for the district."
Barnes said she is trying to take "baby steps" and isn't trying to recycle all of the county's food waste. Allowing the waiver so the composting effort can go forward would provide more information for the county's study, she said.