Tampa Tackles Tomorrow

With a new solid waste director, WASTECON’s host city seeks to modernize its trash operations.

This fall and winter, when people across the country will be wishing they were somewhere warm, several million people will descend on sunny, balmy Tampa, Fla., which sits on Florida's west coast with a population of about 320,000 residents.

Officials estimate that 17 million tourists visit the metropolitan Tampa area, which includes St. Petersburg and other municipalities in surrounding Hillsborough County, each year. Among the more notable events that will bring more tourists this winter is Super Bowl LXIII, which will take place on Feb. 1. The waste industry will make its contribution to Tampa tourism this month, when the annual WASTECON show is held at the Convention Center.

Tonja M. Brickhouse, director of Tampa's Department of Solid Waste, and Mark Wilfalk, the department's chief of operations, organize and manage the clean up after the city's conventions and tourist events. The duo also manages residential and commercial collections for the city, along with the department's emergency preparedness and hurricane cleanup work. The department also oversees Tampa's transfer station at McKay Bay as well as the adjacent waste-to-energy facility.

Brickhouse joined the Tampa department in July. A retired Air Force colonel, she served at MacDill Air Force Base as the deputy commander of the 6th Mission Support Group of the 6th Air Mobility Wing. “My role is administration,” she says. “Mark (Wilfalk) handles operations.”

Brickhouse's first assignment is to modernize operations with new technologies and business systems, a project that has begun with a survey of the department's current systems.

Tampa Today

Brickhouse administers a $70 million, self-supporting enterprise department. The residential, commercial, support services and recycling divisions compose the operational side of the department. The personnel and fiscal management, quality control, audit, contract management and environmental management divisions make up the administrative side.

All told, Tampa generates around 480,000 tons of solid waste per year. Each year, the department collects about 321,000 tons of residential, commercial and bulk trash. This total comes from 83,024 residential customers (who pay just $25.25 per month) and 9,123 commercial customers, about 60 percent of Tampa's commercial waste market. Houston-based Waste Management Inc. handles the other 40 percent of the commercial accounts.

The trash goes to the McKay Bay transfer station, where contract operator Waste Services, Burlington, Ontario, Canada, sorts and separates it. The transfer station sends only a small fraction of the tonnage collected by the city to a landfill: about 58,000 tons per year goes to the local Hillsborough County Landfill.

The rest goes to the waste-to-energy facility adjacent to the transfer station. Electrical energy generated at the site supplies power to as many as 15,000 homes in Tampa. The city sells 19 megawatts per month to the Tampa Electric Co., which generates revenue for the department.

Waste Management Recycle America provides residential recycling, and Chicago-based Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. handles commercial recycling. Together, residential and commercial recycling in the city delivers 43,474 tons of material to Recycle America and Smurfit.

Making Changes

Just last month, Brickhouse went to Miami-Dade County, Fla., to examine some of its business systems. She also has been a regular visitor to the solid waste department in neighboring St. Petersburg, and she says she is looking forward to making contacts at WASTECON. Her purpose: to study best business and operational practices at large, well-run municipal solid waste departments around the country and introduce some of those practices to Tampa. Specifically, Brickhouse and Wilfalk are working out plans to upgrade departmental technologies and business systems, and implement a major green initiative.

Wilfalk says the department will refit five residential side loaders this year with semi-automatic technology. The goal is to automate 85 percent of the residential fleet by 2010. “Tampa has lots of alleys,” Wilfalk says. “So we have to keep some manual collection trucks for areas where the automated trucks can't maneuver.”

Currently, residential truck routing is all done by hand. “We're exploring various automated routing systems available today,” he says. “We're also looking at GPS [global positioning systems] to track the trucks and to dispatch more efficiently.”

Other technologies being investigated include a video package that uses a monitor in the cab to show the driver what is behind the truck. This particular technology also records accidents for follow-up investigations.

Meanwhile, Brickhouse is working on new business systems in the areas of collections and training. “Right now, we collect whatever is put out for $25.25 per month,” Wilfalk says. “But we're considering a change to a volume-based program, in which we would pick up two containers for a fixed price and then charge for extra containers.”

Currently, the department trains drivers with a combination of classroom study and on-the-job training. Brickhouse wants to add a step to the training program to work with drivers in trucks, but not on the job.

Brickhouse also has introduced a major green initiative to the Solid Waste Department. “We're looking at the department's carbon footprint and greenhouse gas issues,” she says. “We're working out carbon offsets.”

One of the major offsets is Tampa's waste-to-energy plant. By disposing of waste without using landfills that generate methane gas as waste decays, the waste-to-energy plant reduces the department's carbon footprint, Brickhouse says.

In fact, the department completed — before Brickhouse came on board — an $80 million retrofit of the waste-to-energy plant. The effort increased capacity by 50,000 tons per year and reduced emissions.

In thinking about what she has accomplished so far and where she plans to go next, Brickhouse says she wants to take the department “from good to great, as the Jim Collins' book says,” referring to the 2001 book “Good to Great: Why some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don't.”

Brickhouse wants Tampa to take that leap.

Michael Fickes is a Westminster, Md.-based contributing writer.