Our culture produces a lot of trash. Our debris are varied: from the food we eat, to our projects, packaging, and just about anything else you can imagine, we as a culture have a propensity to acquire, and then toss. We also have the luxury of not having to think about where it goes.
If you were stranded on an island, and you needed to get rid of your waste, most likely you would dig a hole and bury it. Out of sight, out of mind. This was also the disposal policy of most states – Florida included – for many years: find a big hole and dump trash into it.
“A long, long time ago, counties and cities had landfills,” says John Schert, the director of the Hinkley Center for Solid and Hazardous Waste Management—a statewide research center, funded by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and hosted at the University of Florida—and the self-styled “chief garbologist” of the Sunshine State. As the landfills grew, the process became consolidated. There are fewer – and larger – landfills than there once were.
Other concerns are environmental. If you’re trash is organic material, such as coffee grinds and banana peels, you can relax. However, if you start dumping harmful chemical or synthetics, you can quickly start poisoning your own habitat.
“In the ‘60s and ‘70s,” says Richard Teddler, of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s solid waste center, after decades of neglect, “there was a groundwater contamination problem.” Years of rainfall on the landfill and was filtered through it—“like water in a coffee pot,” he says—and wound up in the aquifer, where it entered the potable water supply. “The Department went to work on liner requirements. We were fortunate to have experts to help us with the rules.”
Gas disposal is handled by a sophisticated system of gas lines – allowing the refuse to decompose naturally into methane and CO2.
The groundwater became contaminated in the ‘60s and ‘70s, leading to landfill reform. Now there are about 40 Class 1 landfills in Florida, in contrast to the 100’s of poorly regulated ones that had existed previously.
In South Florida, because the land is so close to sea level, landfills are required to build up, not down. “They’re high above ground,” Tedder says. “You can’t go down-you have to go up.” Many of the old landfill sites have been repurposed as parks and public areas.
A Complex Process
“Solid waste collection and disposal can be very complicated,” Schert says.
To save taxpayers money, municipal trash collection has been mostly privatized. In Broward County, for instance, has 20 municipalities and 20 different contracts. Solid waste, generally speaking, travels to one of these three destinations: a landfill, a MRF (pronounced “murph”), material recycling facility; or a waste energy plant.
Florida’s recyclable program is becoming increasingly popular. “A water bottle might be recycled into a bottle for detergent,” Schert says. “It won’t come back as another water bottle.”
However, the future lies in the waste energy plant. Florida has about a dozen waste energy plants. They are very large, and very expensive. Money is raised through bond issues, and take generations to recoup investment costs.
Recovering Waste Energy
Waste energy plants are the wave of the future. They are essentially, extremely big and efficient incinerators. Garbage is deposited into pits, compacted, and then moved to “fire boxes,” where it is burned. The resulting heat produces steam, which in turn activates the turbines, which run generators, which produce electricity. They are self-sustaining and even produce excess electricity for the grid.
Although waste energy plants produce ash, ash only takes about 10% of the space that garbage requires.
So how is this relevant to condominium owners? There are ways to recycle that are more effective than other ways.
“It is important to invest in recycling systems that organize recyclables,” comments Jonathan Louis, CEO of American Management Group. “Buildings that have mechanized recycling machines are more efficient and reduce our carbon footprint.”
The Cutting Edge
As environmental plight, global population growth, and the squeeze on natural resources continues, the nature of what and how we throw away garbage will continue to change.
The days of not thinking about the environmental impact of our decisions, and our garbage, are behind us. Fortunately, science is catching up with more and more resources being dedicated to learning how to live sustainably.