Converting Trash to Treasure at Pasco’s Recycling Center
Pasco County’s recycling program is the first of its kind in Florida, and it is saving tax dollars and the environment while creating cheaper roads and clean, lucrative energy.
Thanks to people like Interim Solid Waste Director Justin Roessler, the county has garnered about a dozen top awards, including the Excellence Award from the Solid Waste Association of North America and recycling recognition from the Sustainable Florida program.
“We’ve got a nice trophy case,” Roessler said happily. “We do have government and industry people come here from all over the country to see the facility, like Virginia, for instance. There are unique things we do here.”
What to do with 410,000 Tons of Trash?
Last year the Pasco waste system handled roughly 410,000 tons of trash, some of which resulted from the Covid 19 Pandemic. Now the biggest challenge is handling the Everest-sized mountain of trash that’s coming: the U.S. Census counted 553,947 folks in Pasco in 2019, but by 2040 that number is expected to exceed 900,000. That’s a lot of tin cans and cardboard boxes.
“The key for us is to continuously stay ahead with planning, design and budgeting for growth and demand. It’s always a challenge to keep up when you have growth,” Roessler said.
He should know. Roessler has managed two accomplishments that set Pasco County way ahead of your grandfather’s stinky old “dump”, the ash roadways program and the Waste-to-Energy system (WTE).
Using Trash to make Roads
In 2014, the Pasco County Commission, the Solid Waste Department and University of Florida experts (including Roessler) looked into using ash from burning waste at the county’s Resource Recovery Facility to construct roads.
Researchers discovered that, instead of dumping the ash, they could save on disposal and paving costs while reducing the amount of ash going into the ground. With help from the Hinkley Center for Solid and Hazardous Waste Management and the Florida Department of Transportation, the county got a permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to build “ash roadways” in October 2014.
The bottom line: The government saves $50,000 to $100,000 for every mile of road paved.
“With an increased emphasis on sustainable materials management and recycling, both at the state and federal level, and a goal of creating a circular economy, this project exemplifies a perfect example of how these challenges can be overcome by a group of people working together,” County officials boasted. The “group” included Jason Gorrie of Covanta Energy, John Power, and Michele Baker from Pasco County government.
Their success has been noticed. Pasco officials note “ash recycling in Pasco County will provide a benefit to the region by opening the door for approval of similar projects in other Bay area municipalities. Pinellas County, the City of Tampa, and Hillsborough County all have Waste-to-Energy (WTE) facilities with ash that could potentially be recycled. Now that the precedent has been set by the Pasco County team, other municipalities should find success in getting similar projects started and approved.”
One of the First Governments in Florida to Generate Electricity through Solid Waste Recycling
Pasco County has also generated electricity when burning the solid waste that makes ash at its Waste-to-Energy Plant since 1991, also one of the first in Florida. County officials learned from European countries that started it in the 1980s, like Germany and the Netherlands. Pasco then sells the kilowatts to Duke Energy, which powers 26,000 local homes with this juice.
“It’s now one of only 11 such facilities in Florida,” Roessler said.
The trash is incinerated in one of three boilers that process 1,050 tons of waste per day running continuously; the resulting heat boils water up into steam that powers a huge turbine that turns this energy into electricity.
However, Pasco county’s population should reach about 641,900 residents by 2030, triggering the need for a fourth boiler and second smaller turbine to handle the growing tide of trash. The director said, “We’re planning an expansion including the necessary electronics that will cost $175 million to $200 million…This will increase capacity by 2026 that will cover Pasco County for 10 years.”
Waste-to-Energy is Good Business for Pasco County
Fortunately, Pasco doesn’t waste anything: It’s “mining” old ash dumped into the landfill years ago to use for roads and recover metals that remain after incineration, one of several ways engineers have designed the disposal system to pay its own rising costs. For instance, less limestone must be mined to build roads, and the ash doesn’t have to be dumped into the landfill.
WTE is also economical: In 2015 the county recycled 35 percent of its waste, but that figure shot up to 65 percent due to waste-to-energy. This cut costs for the entire operation through the sale of recyclables and power, costs that have hit $30 million annually.
A large percentage of solid waste from Tampa Bay is eliminated from landfills using WTE at four regional locations. About 2.5 million tons of trash is being transformed there into 150 megawatts of renewable power each year, enough to power 100,000 homes.
The Waste-to-Energy Process
The Pasco process is simple: The solid waste enters the Pasco County Resource Recovery Facility, where reusable or recyclable items are culled from useless materials. The remaining trash is burned to generate power, and the resulting ash is used for roads.
“This doesn’t happen without support from people in the field, county government and engineers, and people who are recycling items,” Roessler concluded. “It’s a testament to them.”
“The engineers” includes people like Facility Manager Chris Spence, who oversees the nuts and bolts of the center. He’s been here 26 years. “The hardest part of my job probably comes down to personnel items. If you get the team functioning right then the equipment and everything else falls into place,” he noted.
Promoting Recycling to Pasco’s Residents
The county spreads the word to recyclers. It gives out fliers and does presentations for homeowners groups and community events like fairs and festivals. There’s also advertising in newspapers, radio, and TV.
“Recycling helps to convert waste into useful items again, saves energy and reduces the need to harvest natural resources such as trees to make paper and manufacture plastics that pollute the land and air and endanger wildlife,” Sierra Club Adventure Coast Group member DeeVon Quirolo said. “It’s an easy thing that everyone can do that has a huge impact on our planet.”
“We’ve recycled for 25 years since they started it in Cleveland (OH). It helps the environment, and saves money. We clean everything before we send it in,” Matthew Carleton of Port Richey stated.
Roessler has applied to become the long-term director of the plant, but he isn’t counting his chickens: “A number of qualified people have applied for the position, and the county has to go through a search for the right person…It’s a thorough process.”
Reducing Waste through Recycling and Reusing is the Mission
The program’s mission statement: “The Recycling and Education Department of Pasco County is committed to reducing the waste stream through recycling and reuse encouraging environmental stewardship and providing information and presentations to educate citizens about recycling and the benefits of waste reduction. Call us for more info!”
People often ask why other materials are prohibited. Simple: The recycling machinery can only handle certain substances. Others jam or break the equipment. Also, there is no market for certain materials, and others like glass contaminate valuable materials. That’s why officials say, “When in doubt throw it out!” Prohibited items include anything bigger than a cat litter box, wet or dirty items, tangled wires or hangers, glass, plastic bags, takeaway coffee cups, disposable nappies, garden waste, styrofoam, waxy paper juice or milk cartons, bubble wrap, medical waste and dead animals.
Other items rank high. Recycling one aluminum can generates enough energy to power a laptop computer for two hours.
Recycling Sites for Pasco County Residents
The county operates four sites that take recyclables from your home that also include (but are not limited to) cardboard, paper, plastic bottles and containers and metal food cans:
- West Pasco Recycling Center, 14606 Hays Road, Spring Hill, 7 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 727-861-3053, (additional items accepted).
- Holiday Area Recycling, Anclote Gulf, Park, 2305 Ballies Bluff Road, Holiday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed.-Sat.
- East Pasco Recycling Center, 9626 Handcart Road, Dade City, 7 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 352-521-0500, (additional materials accepted).
- Land O’ Lakes Area Recycling, Senior Services Center, 6801 Wisteria Loop, Land O’ Lakes, 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri.
For more details (such as small pickup places like supermarkets) call the county’s Utilities Department at 727-847-8145; for solid waste disposal call 727-857-2780, or 727-847-2411 for other issues.
Feature image is Controller Operator, Gentry Storm, is seen supervising the many systems that operate at Pasco’s WTE plant. Image by Kent Smith.