Ever wonder where your garbage ends up? Does your plastic milk jug get recycled once it's carted off in your garbage bag? Does anyone get to see the credit card statement you forgot to shred? What happens to your TV if you throw it in the garbage?
It all depends on where you live.
In Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, most garbage gets burned in an incinerator and is converted to energy for thousands of local households; the rest ends up in a landfill. In Hernando County, your garbage ends up in a landfill.
Floridians burn more garbage than any other state. There are 11 incinerators and 53 landfills in Florida. Burning garbage not only saves landfill space, it also produces energy. But such waste-to-energy facilities are expensive. Pinellas County's, which turns 25 years old this week, cost $500-million.
The garbage flow
Every day, about 1,200 garbage trucks visit the Pinellas County solid waste facility, including its waste-to-energy plant and landfill, to deposit household garbage, as well as construction debris and yard waste. Residents also can bring their garbage here to a hand unload area. The cost is $37.50 a ton or $2 per car and $10 for a single axle pickup truck.
1. Most garbage trucks head to the facility's waste-to-energy facility, which operates seven days a week, 24 hours a day. They dump their waste in the tipping floor pit, which is 35 feet deep and 240 feet long. Three 5,000-pound claws pick up the garbage in 6,000-pound handfuls and drop it into three hoppers above the tipping floor, where it heads down to a boiler and burns at up to 1,800 degrees.
2. The incineration process creates ash that is cooled with water and placed on a conveyor belt. Magnets remove any metal, which is sold as scrap. The ash goes to the landfill, where it's used to cover garbage, such as construction and demolition debris and household garbage overflow that the waste-to-energy facility couldn't handle. On average, about 200 tons of garbage and 1,000 tons of ash are disposed of at the landfill daily. The ash takes up 10 percent of the space and weighs about a third of what the garbage would if it was not burned.
3. The gases that result from this burning process are piped through a scrubber and a fabric filter, a giant vacuum bag that captures airborne ash. This process removes hazardous chemicals such as acid gases, dioxin, metals and mercury.
4. Heat from the burning garbage turns water in the boilers into steam, which operates a turbine to generate electricity for up to 45,000 Progress Energy households a day.
When hazardous wastes are thrown into the garbage, they may end up getting burned and release chemical emissions that can be hazardous to human health. Ten years ago, before Pinellas County's plant was updated to remove most of those emissions, more chemicals such as mercury and dioxin were released from the incinerator. Today, those emissions have been drastically reduced and are within state standards. But environmentalists argue that even the small amounts of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide that are released into the atmosphere from waste-to-energy facilities can get into the food chain and cause harm to human health. Waste in landfills decomposes and can also generate even more gases than a waste-to-energy plant.
Incinerators are moneymakers
In the last fiscal year, Pinellas County's solid waste operation made a $21.2 million profit. The year before that, its profit was $34.5 million. The money comes from tipping fees, electricity sales and recycling. And for the first time ever, sales of scrap metal and other recyclables, including paper and plastics, began to generate a small profit. While the county is using most of the profit to pay for a major overhaul of the waste-to-energy facility, there is still some cash to go around. So much so that in 2009, the county is considering picking up the tab, an estimated $10 million, for curbside recycling in all 24 municipalities and in the unincorporated county. Right now, only three cities do not provide curbside recycling: St. Petersburg, Madeira Beach and Redington Shores. All offer drop-off recycling though (for dropoff locations throughout the county, go to: http://www.pinellascounty.org/utilities/recycle-waste.htm).