BOOM County

IN THE PAST DECADE, southwest Florida's Lee County has emerged as the hub of one of the fastest growing areas in the country. Of course, the county's solid waste program has had to roll with the changes as well. So the community developed an integrated waste management plan that includes:

  • an award-winning waste-to-energy (WTE) facility;
  • franchising waste collection;
  • source reduction and recycling collection and disposal for residential and business customers;
  • a household chemical waste and horticultural waste disposal and processing program;
  • horticultural processing and recycling; and
  • a publicly owned landfill

Coupled with an extensive public information campaign, these efforts have allowed the county to surpass the state-mandated 30 percent recycling goal.

Between 1980 and 2003, Lee County's population increased 98 percent. Once recognized almost entirely as a resort and retirement community, the area recently has been adding new residents at the rate of more than 1,000 per month. And like many areas in Florida, the population swells during the winter months from tourists and seasonal residents.

Florida enacted the Solid Waste Management Act of 1988 to reduce the amount of solid waste disposed of throughout the state and to address the needs of continuing growth. This legislation required counties to provide sound municipal solid waste (MSW) disposal facilities for residents and businesses. It also mandated that each county establish a recycling initiative and meet a recycling goal of 30 percent by 1994. Newspaper, aluminum cans, glass, plastic bottles and steel cans were required to be removed for recycling, and construction and demolition (C&D) debris had to be segregated from the waste stream and disposed of separately at landfills.

In 1989, Lee County developed a comprehensive solid waste plan to conform to the Act, as well as to ensure it had adequate disposal for all waste generated in the county to the year 2030, as it faced its population boom. The county strived to implement its strategy with the cooperation of a neighboring county and all of its municipalities.

A Regional Approach

To begin with, local ordinances require all residential and commercial property owners to use the mandatory waste collection system. The county established six franchise areas and gave contracted haulers exclusive rights to collect waste from assigned areas. Haulers collect residential and commercial waste, recyclables and horticultural waste each week, delivering them to county-designated facilities. Cities within Lee County follow a similar franchise collection system.

Lee and adjoining Hendry County then created an agreement in which all MSW from Hendry County would be disposed of at Lee County's WTE facility. Hendry County also would assist Lee in siting and permitting a new regional landfill in Hendry. C&D, white goods and household hazardous waste would be handled separately and delivered to other facilities for disposal or recycling.

Additionally, Lee County formed agreements with each of its municipalities. The county charges the cities a competitive tipping fee in return for the delivery of waste from the cities.

Cities have historically accounted for approximately 32 percent of Lee County's garbage, C&D and horticultural waste stream, or approximately 142,000 tons of MSW per year. Hendry County provides about 10 percent. Recently, however, more areas have incorporated, reducing the county's waste generation to approximately 50 percent. The new cities all have agreed to continue participating in the county's waste management system.

Contracting Out

Regional agreements alone, however, do not ensure high-quality, cost-effective waste management services. So in 1995, and again in 2000, Lee County used a competitive proposal process to select franchise haulers to fulfill five-year contracts that ensures collection service rates are market-based.

Under the contract, the county pays the haulers for residential waste collection services and collects an assessment from county residents for collection, disposal and all other solid waste services. Commercial establishments in unincorporated areas make payments for solid waste collection and disposal directly to their franchise haulers. The haulers pay the county a tipping fee for the disposal of commercial waste. Additionally, all solid waste system users pay a disposal facilities assessment to the county based on average waste generation within each users' “generation category.”

Using franchise haulers has worked well. The county has never performed the hauling service, so there has been no change in its workforce or equipment; overall service level has remained constant; and collection fees have remained competitive and stable. Furthermore, Lee County employs environmental inspectors who investigate citizens' complaints and compliance issues related to the mandatory collection ordinance and the franchise hauling contracts.

In the past, the transition from expired contracted haulers to new contracted haulers has been challenging. The public and route drivers have a learning curve. Phone queries about different collection days and complaints of missed pickups were common. So the county developed the following recommendations:

  • Inform political leaders, administration, staff and all stakeholders of changes that will affect the county's businesses and residents, including reasons for making the changes and/or cost savings associated with the transition;
  • Establish firm dates for transition tasks, such as ordering equipment, hiring employees, route configurations and commercial customer account data;
  • Review route maps to ensure sufficient coverage, logical layout and minimal changes;
  • Require the exiting hauler to cooperate with the new hauler in retrieving commercial containers;
  • Ensure the new hauler has enough phone lines and equipment, and trained staff to handle transition questions;
  • Ensure the hauler has backup equipment and staff available from other areas to reinforce startup demands;
  • Establish a complaint tracking system to resolve all complaints in a timely manner; and
  • Communicate clearly and often with the public using direct mail and local media; provide maps, phone numbers and a list of frequently asked questions.

These steps have reduced the difficulties of changing franchise haulers. Transition problems generally can be eliminated within four to eight weeks. The county's current franchise haulers are Florida Recycling Services Inc., Altamonte Springs, Fla., and Onyx Waste Services Inc. of Sarasota, Fla.

Award-Winning Facility

The star of Lee County's solid waste program is the WTE facility, which was built with a mass-burn configuration and is operated by Covanta Energy Inc., Fairfield, N.J., (previously Ogden Martin Systems). Operations began in December 1994, two months ahead of schedule and $10 million under budget.

In fiscal 2002, the facility processed 375,015 tons of waste from Lee and Hendry counties. Since startup, the plant has processed more than 3 million tons of MSW; has sold more than 2 million megawatt (MW) hours of power; and has recovered 90,000 tons of ferrous metals. As of January 2000, nonferrous metal has been recovered from the ash residue, resulting in 600 tons of recycled aluminum per year. The county says the ash takes up 90 percent less volume in the landfill than unburned garbage.

The WTE facility was the first operational plant in the United States built with a permanent activated carbon injection system to control mercury emissions to meet anticipated Clean Air Act amendments. The facility has had 100 percent compliance with all environmental permits and regulations for five consecutive years.

In 1995, the facility received the Project of the Year award from Power Engineering International magazine. Lee County's facility is the only WTE operation in the world to win this award, which recognizes excellence in design, construction and operation of power generation systems. The facility also received an Environmental Citizen Award in 1996 from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in recognition of its environmental performance. And in 2000, the facility received a Waste-to-Energy Excellence Gold Award from the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers' Award for “Outstanding Solid Waste Processing Facility.”

Because of the WTE facility's fast-paced growth, expansions are planned. Permitting for a 600 ton per day combustion unit recently was completed.

Left for the Landfill

Excess MSW that cannot be processed at the WTE facility, as well as ash from that facility and the counties' C&D debris is landfilled. Prior to October 2002, this waste was sent to Waste Management Inc.'s 320-acre Gulf Coast Landfill in east Lee County. But disposal at this site ended in December 2002.

In anticipation of the landfill closure, Lee County opened a new landfill in Hendry County in October 2002. The county has contracted with Waste Management Inc., Houston, to operate the new regional landfill for 10 years.

The new 1,800-acre landfill consists of a 13-acre Class I ash/MSW landfill cell, but the site also will be used for C&D debris and solid waste disposal during maintenance of the WTE and during emergency situations. The site is expected to provide disposal capacity for the next 40 years.

Aggressive Recycling

Recycling is another major part of Lee County's waste plan. The county has exceeded the state's mandated 30 percent recycling goal every year. Curbside recyclables collection began in the county in 1989 with 800 homes. Today, the recycling program collects approximately 130 tons per day, rising to more than 225 tons per day during winter months when the population increases.

The Florida DEP announced that Lee County had the highest adjusted recycling rate in the state in 1998, collecting more than 30,000 tons of recyclables. Lee County also enjoys a 75 percent residential recycling participation rate, with approximately 37 percent of businesses recycling some part of their waste stream. Residential and commercial programs are voluntary.

The centerpiece of the recycling program is the county's publicly owned recovered materials processing facility (RMPF), which opened as a leased facility in 1990. Recyclables from about 160,000 single-family homes and 94,000 multi-family homes, as well as businesses, are processed at the RMPF.

Corrugated cardboard, phone books, magazines, newspaper, junk mail, office and computer paper, and pizza boxes are manually separated on the RMPF's fiber line. Steel cans, aluminum cans, plastics (polyethylene terephthalate, high-density polyethylene and mixed #3 through #7) and glass (clear, brown and green) are sorted on the commingled line. FCR Inc., Charlotte, N.C., manages and operates the facility, and pays the county a flat, per ton rate for all materials received. When the average market price for recyclables exceeds the pre-established operating cost, FCR pays 70 percent of the additional revenue to the county.

In 2002, approximately 38,000 tons of recyclables were delivered to the RMPF. Lee County completed construction of a new 60,000-square-foot RMPF on the WTE facility grounds on Sept. 1, 2001. This consolidated waste facilities on one site, increased storage capacity, increased the type and volume of materials that can be processed, eliminated leased property costs and reduced operating costs by using electricity produced by the WTE facility.

The existing facility receives an average of 170 tons per day. The minimum tonnage anticipated in 2010 at the new facility is estimated to be 260 tons per day, of which 180 tons per day will be paper and 80 tons per day will be commingled materials.

Hazwaste and Horticulture

Lee County also is mindful of special wastes, such as electronic waste (e-waste) and household chemical waste (HCW). In 1990, the county began a HCW program, building a collection and temporary storage facility with grant funds. The county holds six, one-day HCW collection events and four small-quantity generator collection events annually. The county also accepts HCW by appointment in special situations.

Approximately 80 percent of the HCW received, including lead acid batteries, used oil, latex paint, antifreeze and propane cylinders, is recycled. Other materials accepted include pesticides, fluorescent tubes, poisons, corrosives, household batteries, and ammunition and marine flares. The county collected 275 tons of hazardous waste in 2002, with an average number of 1,300 participants during each of its scheduled events.

With the rapid growth of obsolete electronics, Lee County was concerned that the hazardous materials found in the devices — mercury, lead, cadmium and chromium — would wind up in the landfill. So the county launched a pilot program to collect consumer electronic devices at special e-collection events and during HCW collection days. Funded by a grant from the Florida DEP, the program has collected 160,000 pounds of electronic devices as of January 2003. E-waste collection also can be scheduled by appointment. Materials are demanufactured and the recyclable materials are reused, according to the county.

Focusing on the Future

Ongoing public information campaigns contribute considerably to the success of Lee County's solid waste programs. For example, the Solid Waste Division has held recycling contests to increase the volume and participation rate, awarding $500 to randomly selected single- and multi-family residents who place only proper materials into their recycling bins. During the first month of the campaign, the county received more than 600 requests for recycling bins.

In May 2000, Lee County updated its waste management plan. And as a result, the Solid Waste Division has:

  • Completed permitting to expand the WTE facility by adding another furnace unit and bringing the capacity up to 1,800 tons per day;
  • Begun construction on the Lee County Transfer Station to expand the type and volume of materials processed;
  • Started operations at the new horticultural waste processing facility at the WTE site that is capable of processing 40,000 tons per year;
  • Expanded the area's commercial recycling collection program by providing drop-off boxes at 27 locations throughout the county;
  • Expanded the Discarded Electronics Collection and Recycling program and processed approximately 180,000 pounds by fiscal 2002-2003;
  • Created a document shredding/recycling service to encourage office paper recycling; and
  • Implemented an aggressive recycling education campaign targeted at multi-family complexes and businesses.

With such advance planning and project implementation, Lee County is positioned to weather any growth spurts and meet the needs of its future.

Margie Byers is the former promotions specialist for the Lee County Division of Solid Waste. Lindsey Sampson is the current division director. Visit for more information.