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A huge landfill at the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County

It would be so easy to sit around all day complaining about climate change and global warming. I mean, hey, we've got so many storms that my colleague who updates "Latest Events" on our Eyes on the Earth web app rolls her eyes as if to say "I can't even." Global warming, drought, El Niño, big hurricanes: Planet Earth is like, "You want a piece of me?" And even as the challenge of climate change and global warming hits us in the face like wave after wave of storm surge, I ask myself: Are they challenges or are they opportunities? Or both?

Some thrive on transforming things that appear negative. And perhaps nothing appears more negative than our garbage. It's ... garbage, refuse, trash, rubbish, junk – the waste products of our lives, the stuff we determine useless. Wouldn't it be amazing if it were possible to take that discarded dreck and turn it into something that we really, really want and need?

Well, there is.

And the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County, Florida has taken the lead. They have the most advanced and cleanest waste-to-energy power plant in North America. They take trash directly from garbage trucks and load it into "the Pit,"" which is designed to handle up to seven days of waste. Grapples that look like giant claws feed the waste into one of three boilers. There, it's burned to generate steam, which drives a turbine generator to produce electricity. A suite of pollution control technologies ensures extremely low air emissions.

A grapple moves a pile of garbage to the incinerator to be converted to energy in the renewable energy facility instead of being added to a landfill. Photo courtesy of Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County.
A grapple moves a pile of garbage to the incinerator to be converted to energy in the renewable energy facility instead of being added to a landfill. Photo courtesy of Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County.

The plant can process 3,000 tons of trash every day and convert it into enough electricity to power more than 40,000 homes and businesses. Yeah.

There are a bunch of reasons why waste-to-energy power plants benefit the environment:

- First, the Renewable Energy Facilities at the Solid Waste Authority reduce greenhouse gas emissions by producing electricity that otherwise would have been generated by burning fossil fuels.
- The system also decreases the volume of waste that goes to the landfill, thereby limiting methane generation, which is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.
- The facility has recycled nearly 2 million tons of paper, plastic, aluminum and glass and recovers metals, such as iron and aluminum, from materials discarded by the residents and businesses. Manufacturing new products from recycled materials consumes less energy and significantly reduces greenhouse gas generation compared to mining and metal production from raw materials.
- The Solid Waste Authority also collects gases generated by the landfill to effectively prevent emissions into the atmosphere. These gases are harnessed to produce energy, which helps reduce fossil fuel reliance.

Tom Henderson, project manager at Arcadis, managed the development of this 7- to 8-year project, because he knew how to put the team of talented people together and understood the political and engineering aspects of getting the plant built. During our phone conversation, he told me "the primary purpose of these facilities is to eliminate the need for a landfill."

Landfills are forever

I told him I didn't think most of this blog's readers had ever been to a landfill, so I asked him to describe what it's like to stand next to one.

"The first thing you notice is that these facilities are huge," he told me. "It's not like there's a couple of bags of trash brought there every day. There's tens of thousands of tons, hundreds and hundreds of truckloads, so the first thing you're impressed with is how much trash there is. It's just this huge volume of material." Throwing so much stuff away is one of the major greenhouse gas and climate change contributors.

Yikes. I wondered if you could identify individual things or if it looked more like a mush pit. "You see food waste, a lot of paper and plastic, mattresses. The smell is pretty bad," he told me. "Just about anything you could imagine in your home or office today is going to end up at a place like that in most places in this country."

I looked around my room at my night table with a lamp on it, a moisturizer, a phone cable, some papers. I thought about all the Halloween decorations I'd walked past this morning.

All of it, all of it, all of it, ends up in a landfill

We went on to discuss how, as a society, we've become very selfish. People don't want to think about this big mound of trash. We want what we want and we don't care what happens to it after the trash truck drives off. Yup, that is us.

Well, some people care; you might even be one of them. But judging by the way our society disposes its trash, its waste products, it's obvious we don't care enough to stop what we've been doing.

"Landfills are very inexpensive to build," said Henderson, "but you have to maintain them forever." (He emphasized the word "ever" as if to extend the timeline with the tone of his voice.) "A hundred years from now, the liner system will have failed and we have to go back and spend money to clean it." As he spoke, I thought about the parallel to climate change: The maintenance cost is not included in the initial cost of the landfill, just as the cost of adaptation is not included in the price of burning fossil fuels.

Henderson explained how easy it is to "build landfills if nobody is there to complain about it." But in Palm Beach County, Florida, the County Commission decided to deal with their own problem, rather than exporting it like a lot of other large cities. When people are involved in their community, they have more control over what happens. "We're creating this problem. We should deal with it ourselves." Waste-to-energy plants are usually right inside the community. They decided that it was not okay to put the garbage in a truck and drive it hundreds and hundreds of miles "away." And in fact, at their waste-to-energy facility, they have a sign that says, "This is where 'away' is."

On Planet Earth, there is no "away." "Away" is here.

Find out more about the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County, Florida's waste-to-energy plant here and here.

And thank you so much for reading.


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