Monday, February 23, 2009

Perdido Landfill

Last week I had the opportunity to tour the Perdido Landfill, run by the Escambia County Division of Solid Waste Management. The staff, headed by Mr. Pat Johnson, is so enthusiastic about their jobs that sometimes you forgot it was trash that they are talking about....

An interesting mix of people took the tour, from UWF students to curious citizens to elected officials, and I highly recommend joining a future tour.

The landfill, visually. The first thing you notice as you approach the landfill is the plastic bags. They are everywhere, particularly covering the fences around the landfill. We were told that most of the bags don't even hit the ground when they are dumped from the truck, but rather just fly off. A nice visual reminder of why we should use reusable bags when we shop and to recycle the bags that we do get (they can go in the recycling dumpsters around the county).

Where does it come from. Operations at the landfill are financed by the landfill fees charged to all of the users of the landfill. These users include the city, the ECUA, and commercial haulers (the companies that provide dumpsters at businesses or apartment complexes). Fees are charged only on waste that goes into the landfill, not on the materials for recycling.

Recycling—paper, plastic, and cans. Recycling is where the landfill gets interesting, encouraging a lot of creative on the part of the staff, led by Jim Howes. Of course, there is recycling that is familiar to most of us--paper, plastic, and cans. These materials are sold to various companies, most notably Armstrong World Industries here, which takes paper. In many cases, the cost of transporting the materials, etc, eats up the return on the materials, but it still keeps them from entering the landfill and reduces the use of virgin material in manufacturing.

Glass. They also recycle glass at the landfill. However, there are no glass recyclers nearby, so the folks at the landfill grind the glass to use in their road building materials. [I have been asked why glass is not taken in the ECUA program or the city pilot program. The reasoning is that the glass will break in the compactor, getting embedded in the other materials. With our recycling manually sorted, it becomes risky. In addition, the embedded glass reduces the quality of the other materials, making them less marketable.]

Beyond expectations. Recycling at the landfill goes beyond these materials. They collect household hazardous waste, including paint. The paint gets remixed and goes back to code enforcement and others. If there are structures that aren't up to code due to lack of painting, they will be repainted with paint from this program. A new building at the landfill will include the capabilities to mix multiple colors of paint, and this paint could be used by groups like Habitat for Humanity.

Reuse. This new building will also house a swap shop, an idea promoted by DeeDee Green, where people can bring items that typically they would have thrown in the landfill but might be usable by others. Things like household chemicals (bug spray, for instance), used furniture, old computers. Visitors to the landfill could then take these items free of charge.

Yard waste. Yard waste is another material that can be reused. Material that is not in plastic bags is mulched and used for stabilizing the landfill. In addition, it is made into mulch that is available for free to county residents. Yard waste that is packed in plastic bags, however, can not be used for these efforts. Therefore, landfill staff request that residents use a separate container, paper bags, or simply set yard trash curbside.

Methane. Another interesting reuse is the methane produced by the landfill. In the past, this methane was sold to International Paper to heat their boilers. Now the landfill folks are working with Gulf Power to install generators. The burning methane would then generate electricity that will be sold back onto the electric grid.

Landfill fees. As I mentioned, the landfill charges fees for all of the waste that comes in. These fees cover all of the operations of the landfill. This includes the actual operation of the current landfill as well as the maintenance of the old landfills. In addition, it covers the cost of the recycling programs. While some of the recycling is revenue-generating, many of the recycling efforts are a cost (such as waste tires or the paint remixing). The county also funds neighborhood clean ups using money from the landfill fees. [These are similar to the programs that the city funds through our sanitation department.]

Education. The staff takes a very active role in educating area students about recycling. [They also have been dedicated volunteers with the I LOVE Science program that I coordinate through IHMC. I appreciate their work on that.] Many people have also been seeing the tote bags they have given out at various events, like Earth Day. It seems the landfill staff would rather put the landfill part of their business out of business with their efforts. They push reducing with their tote bags, reuse with the swap shop, and all kinds of recycling.

City recycling. Of course, this all prompts the question, what about recycling in the city? We are moving forward, with staff developing a curbside recycling plan to bring before us in March. The East Hill pilot program is a partnership with the Escambia County Department of Solid Waste, and they hope to participate in a larger program. The pilot program was quite a success, and I appreciate the effort of those residents to show how successful recycling can be in this community. The ECUA program is growing fast, too. So all indications show that we will have a great program in place by this summer.

Trommel screen. Though curbside recycling is what most people think about when they talk about recycling, I do want to point out a new "recycling" effort the city has started. The council just authorized public works to buy a trommel screen. What, you might ask, is a trommel screen? It is a large piece of equipment (approximately $100,000) that will sort sand out of the city's street sweepings. About 90% of the weight of the street sweepings the city collects is sand. By using the trommel screen, we can keep that sand from going in the landfill. Instead, it will go into making new roads. This screen will divert about 5000 tons of sand from the landfill each year. That is comparable to the about 8000 tons of recycling we would expect to collect from a successful (25% diversion rate) recycling program. This highlights how many ways we can work together and think creatively to improve the environment and the economy of out community.