My recent visit to the Solid Waste Authority (SWA) of Palm Beach County where I saw a colossal collection of one area’s waste strongly reinforced the belief that we as citizens have a responsibility to help keep the landfills down by producing less waste and recycling correctly.

The Facility Overview:

According to the Solid Waste Recyclopedia Resource Book, in 2013 Palm Beach was among the top fourteen counties in Florida with the highest recycling rates. I toured the complex with colleagues from The National Association of Professional Organizers-South Florida chapter.

Contrary to what I expected, it was a very sophisticated and well maintained facility, devoid of any nasty odors and complete with a running path, natural preserve, and a rooftop garden. SWA simultaneously manages the recovered materials processing facility to process recyclables for market (saves natural resources), the home chemical and recycling center to safely dispose of and recycle hazards (keeps water clean), two renewable energy facilities to burn post-recycled solid waste for energy, the biosolids pelletizer to turn sludge into eco-friendly fertilizer, and the landfills (the last resort for solid waste disposal).

Staff members, Angelique and Brian, were our tour guides who welcomed us to a place they call “Away” because when you throw your things away that is where they end up. The goal of the tours is to raise awareness about the public’s role in reducing, reusing, recycling and rethinking waste.

The guides took us up several stories to a window where we could look down into a massive trash pit that looked like an Olympic sized swimming pool for garbage. I could make out the tree clippings, old tires, and a mattress that looked like a piece of gum from my vantage point amongst the debris.

The trash was being lifted up to an incinerator by a gigantic claw. Each day the items are burned and each day more piles in, creating a never ending cycle of dumping and burning. It was impressive and depressing all at the same time due to sheer volume.

Recycling Effectively:

We also viewed the recycling center machines that separate cans, bottles, and bale paper for re-sale. I learned that although many counties have switched to a single stream system where only one bin is used for all recyclables, this system leads to higher contamination rates and less of the product is viable for reuse.

Palm Beach stands out from many other counties because it runs on the dual stream recycling plan with two separate bins for recyclable containers and for paper products. Keeping the items apart helps to produce a cleaner recycled commodity worth more to the manufacturers who buy them and ensures that SWA landfills as little as possible.

Our guides explained that just because something is made out of paper or plastic does not mean that it is fit to be recycled. The same goes for anything that is contaminated, like a wet piece of paper or greasy pizza box.

I learned that a mixture of ruined and improper items dumped in the recycling bins create a lot of extra work for the plant because they have machines to help separate the items but some things cannot be detected by machines and workers still have to manually sort items before processing.

The Recycling Game:

As an exercise in awareness, we played a game where we stood in front of a large table-top touch screen the size of about two pool tables put together to act as SWA employees on the line. The screen came to life with a cartoon conveyor belt at the recycling plant covered in items the public had attempted to recycle.

Our job was to survey each item and pull out any non-recyclables before they got to the end of the belt and entered the recycling machine which would trigger an alarm and shut down the whole system to empty and reboot.

We were instructed to recycle aluminum cans, drink boxes, glass bottles and jars, milk and juice cartons, plastic bottles and containers, steel cans. Recyclable paper products included corrugated cardboard, school & office paper, paper bags, dry food boxes, unwanted mail, tissue and beverage boxes, newspapers, magazines, catalogs, and telephone books.

Most importantly, the trash that needed to be located and removed was napkins, paper towels, paper cups, foam/ Styrofoam products, paper plates, plastic utensils, sandwich bags, shrink wrap, and plastic bags.

We were reminded not trash items such as clothing, accessories, appliances, toys and furniture that could easily be donated. We were also instructed to return plastic grocery bags and Styrofoam egg cartons and meat trays to the local store, and to dispose of computers, cell phones, televisions, batteries, gas cans, propane tanks, pesticides, fluorescent bulbs, flares, used cooking oil and paint, at special collection sites (not in the regular trash or recycling). The same went for needles.

The game started out easy enough and we each grabbed things and slid them to the correct place to be processed, but as the rounds went on and the belt sped up, it became much more difficult to catch the mistakes. Things kept whizzing past us and the alarms and lights continued flashing just before the machine would shut off. The game gave us a tiny peak into what it was like to sort through the public’s misinformed attempts at recycling.

Take Away:

Processing plants like the one in Palm Beach are doing their job to manage waste and they are also offering education to the public via guided tours, information booklets, and online resources. The rest of the work is up to the general public to “Recycle Right Every Day” as the Recyclopedia states.

It is not enough to dump stuff haphazardly in our recycling bins and think we are doing our part to “preserve the environment”. It takes expensive machinery and man power to correct our mistakes and it is an unnecessary waste of time and resources.

The next time you and I drop something into the recycling bin, we should both take an extra second to ensure that the item is indeed recyclable and free of contaminants so that it can be processed accordingly. That is what I call Responsible Recycling!

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