Amid the cardboard cartons, No. 2 plastics, soup cans and today's newspaper are a few surprises hidden in Maryland's successful efforts to recycle 40 percent of its waste.

The state recycles chicken egg shells, crab carapaces and a host of unconventional items, according to a database from the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The Maryland Recycling Act requires all counties and Baltimore City to recycle 15 to 20 percent of their waste. All are in compliance.

A voluntary statewide recycling goal of 40 percent has been set for this year, and Maryland is well within reach of that. As of 2003, the state's recycling rate was 39.6 percent.

The database confirms this number, and lists what each county has been recycling over the past 14 years.

Take, for instance, Worcester and Somerset Counties, where hatchery waste — broken eggs or eggs not for human consumption — is being turned into fertilizer and dog food.

"A lot of people don't realize that," said Tom Truitt, plant manager of American Dehydrated Foods Inc. in Princess Anne. Every week, he said, about 480,000 pounds of liquid and 130 tons of shells are reprocessed, instead of going into landfills. The liquid from the eggs is dried and sent to dog food companies, which then add it as a protein component.

The shells are often given to local farmers, such as John Taylor in Berlin, who uses the calcium-rich substance as fertilizer.

"It helps break up the hard soil and makes it more manageable," said Taylor, adding that the free material "helps cut our cost for farming." In Taylor's farm, the process comes full circle — the crops he grows, soybeans, corn and wheat, are used in chicken feed.

Even parts of the state's mascot, the blue crab, are being recycled in Somerset and Dorchester Counties. Most crab parts, including crab lungs, locally called "dead man's fingers," are being landfilled, said Lawrence Somers, supervisor for Somerset County landfill.

However, a crab shell recycling company called Chitin Works in Cambridge is looking at an innovative use for crab shells. Run by Pat Condon, this company is taking over where his previous one, New Earth Services Inc., stopped.

New Earth Services used to compost the crab shells and sell the material in gardening stores. "It never did turn out to be profitable," said Condon, adding that despite that it was the company's best-known product.

Condon's new company is looking into a way to convert the chitin found in crab shells into chitosan, a biological polymer that is used as in wastewater treatment and as a fluid thickener. Greg Payne, a chemical and biochemical engineering professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, who is collaborating with Condon, said that chitosan also has medical applications, such as wound healing, and as chemical detectors in nanotechnology.

Polymers, which have various industrial uses, are normally made from petroleum and are not biodegradable. Conden said that using crab shells may be a way to solve this problem as well as reduce our nation's reliance on oil.

"We're not endowed with petroleum reserves," said Condon. Yet, he said, "We are blessed with a lot of natural resources that we should be using."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.