Workers add more garbage to Pinellas County’s landfill, which has an estimated life of another 50 to 60 years. Statistics from 2007 showed that about 76 percent of what county residents throw in the trash could be recycled. A plastic milk jug is visible in this scene. It could have been recycled to make another product, such as a park bench.
Getting rid of the garbage is a challenge, especially in Florida’s most densely populated county.
Pinellas County residents and visitors generate about 1.3 million tons of municipal solid waste – garbage – every year. That’s a lot for a county with only one landfill.
But, effective management of the waste stream coupled with continuing advances in technology, a dose of creativity and assistance from the public may extend the life of that landfill a little bit longer.
Bill Embree, solid waste supervisor for Pinellas County Solid Waste, said the landfill currently has an estimated life of another 50 to 60 years.
Conserving the landfill is the Solid Waste’s No. 1 goal, he said.
“Our mission is to make it last as long as possible,” Embree said. “When it reaches its permitted capacity our only option will be to transport it (solid waste) out of the county and your garbage bill will go up.”
Solid Waste has identified 360 specific components in the county’s waste stream. Many of those components could be reused or recycled.
Embree said resident-level curbside recycling is a big “part of the equation” in the county’s program to manage its waste. All municipalities offer recycling programs. The majority have curbside recycling and a few now offer single stream recycling, meaning materials can be mixed together within one container. Residents of unincorporated Pinellas use a subscription service. The county also provides more than 60 drop-off recycling centers.
Estimates from 2007 showed that about 76 percent of what county residents throw in the trash could be recycled. Paper topped the list at 26 percent. Food was next at 12 percent, followed by bottles and cans at 11 percent.
Embree said most all paper could be recycled, including cardboard, junk mail, books and magazines.
“It is the largest piece of the waste stream,” he said.
But recycled cardboard can be turned into cereal boxes, mixed paper into facial tissues and newspaper can become egg cartons. Bicycles can be made from recycled aluminum and steel cans. Plastic soda bottles can be made into carpet and plastic milk jugs can be used to make park benches.
“Garbage is an unlimited urban natural resource,” Embree said. “As long as we live, we generate waste that can be recycled and reused.”
Electronics are a bigger part of our lives now than ever before, and they are a special challenge for those in charge of disposing of our trash safely. Cell phones, computers, video game players, TVs, etc., should never be thrown in the trash. They are harmful to the environment and the landfill. There’s about 5 pounds of lead in most TVs and computer monitors, according to information Solid Waste passes out to schoolchildren who tour its facilities.
Recycling electronics also allows reuse of small amounts of valuable metals inside some components. For example, 200 cellphones contain enough gold to make a wedding ring.
Hazardous chemicals, such as paint, pesticides, old gasoline, solvents, also need to be disposed of safely to avoid contamination. Fluorescent bulbs contain mercury and must be recycled. Residents can drop off hazardous materials and electronics at the Household Electronics and Chemical Collection Center, aka HEC3. The HEC3 Swap Shop allows residents to pick up used household products, automotive fluids and paint at no charge.
Mobile collections also are scheduled throughout the county. Embree said about 13 are scheduled each year to allow residents a closer location to take hazardous waste, electronics, fluorescent bulbs and other materials that should not be placed in the garbage.
“We go to the residents as a convenience to them,” Embree said.
The county also will take its mobile collection unit to churches, businesses or housing complexes on request. For more information on Haz-to-Go, call 464-7500.
Embree pointed out that hazardous disposal of products is available to residents at no charge. Businesses do pay a fee, per state law.
Another way to recycle is to donate items you don’t want but are still in good condition. Clothing and fabric made up 4 percent of the county’s waste stream in 2007. Solid Waste suggests seeking out thrift stores or local charities that welcome donations of clothes, toys, CDs, games, books and other items.
People recycle for a variety of reasons. Some do it to help preserve the environment. Some do it to reduce the load on their garbage can. Some do it just because it is the right thing to do, Embree said.
Recycling is more than just saving the environment. It helps to “preserve the economics and viability of our community,” Embree said.
Turning recycled materials into other products saves money and it saves the environment.
“When we mine or harvest our natural resources, they are gone, gone,” he said. “When we recycle, we save our natural resources and turn our trash into something useful.”
Recycled yard waste is made into mulch, which is available at no charge at several locations throughout the county. Solid Waste uses this same mulch to help manage the load between the landfill and the waste-to-energy plant.
Embree explained that historically the landfill was covered with ash. Now, some of it is covered in mulch, which is clean to burn.
“If we cover it with mulch, we can recover a portion of the landfill,” Embree said.
The WTE plant is a big part of the county’s solid waste management process. The facility converts solid waste into electricity, which is sold to Duke Energy. The plant can process 950,000 tons of garbage a year – enough to power up to 45,000 households a day.
“One ton of garbage is equivalent (in terms of producing electricity) to one barrel of oil,” Embree said.
Using garbage to fuel generation of electricity saves natural resources – oil, coal and natural gas.
“Combust a million tons of garbage, save a million barrels of oil from being imported from overseas,” he said.
Past estimates have shown that about 1,000 vehicles pass through the “scalehouse” every day on their way to the landfill at Bridgeway Acres, 3095 114th Ave. N., St. Petersburg. The county charges $37.50 tipping fee per ton of waste – the same since 1988.
Inspectors at the scalehouse check for items that are not allowed in the landfill, directing haulers to the HEC3 or other facility to unload. Bulky items, such as mattresses, are sent to the landfill. Tires are sent to the WTE plant because they burn hot. Plus, after the tires are burned, as much as 4 pounds of steel per tire can be recovered from the ash. Metals are removed from the ash after the garbage is burned using magnets and “eddy currents.” The remaining ash goes to the landfill.
The landfill opened in 1979. It is more than 90 feet in height and plans call for it to get as high as 150 feet, which will exceed the highest point in the county by 40 feet. Using the WTE facility, the volume of garbage is reduced by about 90 percent and the weight by about 70 percent, which extends the life of the landfill.
Construction debris is diverted from the landfill when possible to become part of the county’s reef program. Reefs are built on the bottom of the ocean using concrete pipes, steel beams, large concrete culverts and other materials, which provide clean habitat for fish and other marine creatures.
A many-faceted recycling program will continue to be a vital part of the county’s solid waste management. More recycling by the public would help.
“Many people in our county recycle and conserve because they are convinced it is the right thing to do,” Embree said.
He said it is mostly the “uninformed” that do not do recycle.
But it hasn’t been that long since recycling became popular.
In 1988, the state passed the Solid Waste Management Act – the first of its kind in Florida. Lawmakers set a recycling goal of 30 percent by 1995. In 1988, the state recycled only 5 to 10 percent of its trash. Then the state implemented a big education effort in public schools.
“Thirty years later, those kids in school are now adults with families and they recognize the importance of recycling,” Embree said.
The state has made its initial recycling goal of 30 percent and has set a new statewide goal of 75 percent by 2020. Thanks to curbside recycling, the WTE plant, the mulch program, HEC3, the reef program and other efforts, Pinellas currently recycles about 65 percent of its waste. Only Lee and Hillsborough counties have programs as successful.
Embree believes education is an important key, along with making recycling more convenient and perhaps adding monetary incentives.
“There are benefits of awareness,” he said. “Eventually recycling will become second nature. New technology is coming along. Theoretically, we could approach a time where we generate very little waste.”