Lee County, Florida, is not unlike many other Florida counties.
Its population swells in the winter and spring with snowbirds, spring breakers and Major League Baseball fans coming for spring training season. It was also one of the hardest-hit areas of the housing bubble. Lee County Solid Waste Director Keith Howard describes the southwest Florida county as an area that “grew quick and crashed hard in the most recent recession.”
Regardless of all the ups and downs, one thing that has remained constant is the management of the solid waste generated there. That’s because almost 30 years ago, the Lee Board of County Commissioners had the foresight to adopt the Lee County Integrated Solid Waste Master Plan, which set it on a course to manage waste as a resource and greatly reduce what was going to landfills. Not to say the solid waste division hasn’t experienced fluctuations in volumes and utility and commodity prices, but the set of facilities and partners that manage the county’s waste work together to minimize the impact.
PLANNING FOR THE LONG TERM
The master plan’s primary objectives were to site a publicly owned waste to energy (WTE) facility and a new, smaller landfill and to begin a curbside recycling program. The population was soaring, and commissioners were looking for a solution that made sound economic sense and that would minimize long-term landfill operations.
As a result, today, Lee County Integrated Waste Management System includes a 300-acre site in Fort Myers that houses the WTE facility, a single-stream material recovery facility (MRF) and a construction and demolition (C&D) recycling facility and a transfer station.
“As a public agency, our growth strategy is focused on having sufficient capacity to manage the community’s waste stream for the health and safety of the community,” says Howard.
The county also owns a household chemical waste drop-off site in Fort Myers and a compost processing facility and a landfill containing separate sited areas for ash, C&D and MSW. Lee County also owns additional transfer stations in Hendry County after it started to process the county’s waste in 1990.
Putting all the systems and processes in place happened throughout much of the 1990s. The recycling program was implemented in 1992, while the WTE facility opened in 1994, and the Lee/Hendry landfill opened in 1997 and began receiving waste in 2002. Before that, waste went to Waste Management’s Gulf Coast Landfill though a cooperative agreement.
The county provides solid waste and recycling collection, processing and disposal to unincorporated Lee County and the cities of Bonita Springs, Estero and Fort Myers Beach. It provides processing services for municipal solid waste to Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Sanibel and adjacent Hendry County. Waste and recycling collection—a $25-million-per-year service—is handled by third-party companies and overseen by the district. The district has five franchise areas for collection. Advanced Disposal, Ponte Vedra, Florida, services three franchise collection areas, and Waste Pro, Longwood, Florida, services the other two.
Residents and commercial customers are charged two per-ton fees. One is listed on their tax bills as a disposal facilities assessment geared toward the fixed cost of the system. Residents also are charged a gate fee based on general usage, which is also on their tax bills. The commercial gate fee is based each customer’s disposal volume.
“We look at our expenses, offset against any other revenues that we can derive from our system, and then the short fall is picked up from those two rates,” says Howard. “Historically we have pursued diversification to minimize the long-term impacts to the ratepayers whenever possible while trying to keep expenses in check,” Howard notes.
A DEEPER LOOK
The WTE facility is one of the main components of Lee County’s integrated waste management system. It receives around 620,000 tons of processable material annually, with about 550,000 to 560,000 tons coming from residential and commercial garbage.
In addition to traditional MSW, the WTE facility also combusts biosolids and items from law enforcement, such as drugs, fire arms, unfit currency and confidential documents.
The facility has a 630,000-ton-per-year (TPY) effective capacity and 670,000-TPY total capacity. It produces 59.7 megawatts (MW) of electricity per hour. Fifteen percent of the electricity used to power the campus, while the rest is sold on the open market.
“As a public agency, our growth strategy is focused on having sufficient capacity to manage the community’s waste stream for the health and safety of the community.” – Keith Howard, director, Lee County Solid Waste
The WTE facility receives more than 800 truckloads, or about 2,500 tons, per day of waste Monday through Friday. The plant operates 24 hours per day, seven days per week.
Covanta, Morristown, New Jersey operates the county-owned facility. Howard says this serves as a model of a successful public-private partnership.
In 2013, the county extended that partnership with Covanta to include the installation of an enhanced metals recovery system designed to increase metals collected from the ash postcombustion.
The single-stream MRF processes recyclables collected curbside. Plastic, glass and metal containers, paper and cardboard are processed for recycling through mechanical and manual processes. ReCommunity of Charlotte, North Carolina, (or its predecessors) has operated the MRF for the county for more than 20 years and recently was awarded another five-year contract with two two-year renewal options.
“ReCommunity provides another excellent example of public-private partnerships that work,” says Howard.
Lee County also owns and operates a construction and demolition (C&D) recycling facility at the campus that sorts C&D debris to recover metal, wood, plastic, cardboard and concrete. In 2014, the county began to pull clean wood from the stream and market it to private vendors that use it to make decorative mulch.
Yard waste generated in Lee County is ground and converted into mulch and compost at the Lee/Hendry Landfill. Residents can get mulch for free at five locations across the county.
Lee County Solid Waste also has an off-site household chemicals and electronics recycling facility in Fort Myers. Residents can take household chemicals, such as old paint, oil, fertilizer and corrosive chemicals, there.
Businesses have monthly drop-off dates for their hazardous materials coordinated with the county’s chemical waste disposal vendor, EQ.
Outdated electronics collected at the curbside also are handled at the facility.
Lastly, after all other methods of disposal are used, the material that remains is sent to the Lee/Hendry Regional Solid Waste Disposal Facility in Hendry County. Most of the material that goes to the landfill is ash from the combustion process, oversized C&D debris and materials that do not have markets.
All of these processes combine to put the county recycling rate at 73 percent. Howard says the state of Florida credits WTE toward diversion rate.
“The traditional way when you think of recycling is 46 percent. We are a strong recycling community. The extra 27 percent is energy credit from the waste to energy. Any megawatt hour generated is a ton of recycling credit,” Howard says of how the state calculates it.
Lee County Solid Waste Division’s campus may have separate facilities on it, but they all work together. “We do embrace and operate as an integrated solid waste management system. We look at things and how they complement each other,” says Howard. “It’s supporting an on-site disposal option.”
For example, the WTE facility adds residues from the MRF and C&D recycling facility to its feedstock. Cardboard and rigid plastic collected at the C&D recycling facility are baled at the MRF and marketed with like materials.
“There is just this give and take to try to keep things stable and comfortable at the plant while trying to keep these other operations running well together,” Howard comments.
Lee County Solid Waste owns all the facilities, and employees oversee the contracted operations for curbside collections and contracts for operation and maintenance of the WTE facility and MRF. More than 60 percent of the county’s 104-person staff are drivers, heavy equipment operators, environmental technicians, mechanics, crew supervisors and solid waste technicians.
Two important issues that have had an impact on Lee County Solid Waste’s profitability are recycling contamination and energy pricing.
Since the WTE facility lost its power purchase agreement with Seminole Electric in December 2016, times have been challenging. The county had been selling its power to that electric cooperative in Tampa for more than a decade, but Seminole decided to terminate the contract. As a result, Lee County Solid Waste had to figure out what to do with its power and found a temporary solution.
“We’ve hired a brokerage company, Rainbow Energy Management Corp. We call it an energy asset manager to manage our energy assets and help us find the best price,” says Howard.
Under the federal Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA), Howard says, the county can sell its power to Florida Power & Light (FP&L).
“Unfortunately, FP&L is the big player in the state that has the worst as-available prices,” Howard comments. “So we are looking at other investor-owned utilities under PURPA, as well as any contract spot market rates we can get.”
Howard says the county would like to find another 10- to 20-year purchase agreement; but, right now, utility companies only want to pay for energy and not for capacity. “The best predictions right now are that in 2021 or 2022 capacity payments may come back,” he says.
Recycling also has its challenges. Howard says the viability of recycling systems, contamination issues and convincing the public that recycling is not free are just a few of the issues haulers and processors have. And, he says, there is a big difference between the county providing a service to residents and the private sector working on profit margins.
“When we talk about residential and multifamily, no matter what the markets are, we are going to be picking up all [materials], whether it is glass, metal, aluminum, plastic (or) paper. Whereas in the private sector, if something isn’t making money, they are going to cut it,” he says.
The division has found a way to save money by switching its tires to super singles, where instead of having two side-by-side tires on a vehicle, the vehicle is equipped with one much larger tire.
“We switched over to them and found we were getting a slight fuel-economy savings” says Howard.
Additionally, at the ash monofill, when the county was running the two side-by-side tires, pieces of metal would get wedged between the two tires. “With the super singles ... you don’t have that issue.” Howard says. He adds that tires last longer, need to be replaced less frequently and cost less.
Howard calls waste “the invisible infrastructure of communities.” He adds, “We don’t have pavement, pipes or wires, but without the pieces we bring to the table, life gets a lot messier.”
The division is in the midst of a master planning project to begin developing the strategies and facilities for the next 20 years, and it is clear integration will continue to play a part.
“As technologies evolve,” Howard says, “it is rather difficult to pinpoint one strategy that will solve the problem, and we’re finding it will take a multipronged approach that has to be flexible and adaptable as the community grows and changes.”