Beth Burns, senior environmental specialist, Pinellas County (Fla.) Solid Waste, started her career by focusing on air quality. Since 2011, she has been with Pinellas County Solid Waste where she continually seeks to find new ways to create waste management solutions for her community. That includes help maximizing what goes to the county’s waste-to-energy facility rather than its lone landfill.
Amongst her colleagues, Burns is known for her commitment to service.
“I feel that Ms. Burns’ commitment to the organization and the initiatives we are trying to implement is what drives her to help other sections and continually look for opportunities to make improvements,” says Kelsi Oswald, director, Pinellas County Solid Waste.
Burns was named as one of Waste360’s 40 Under 40 recipients. In this interview, she talks about looking for creative, holistic approaches to managing waste in Pinellas County.
Waste360: Who does Pinellas County Solid Waste serve?
Beth Burns: We serve 24 municipalities. We have a waste-to-energy facility and a co-located landfill. We serve all of the businesses and citizens including the municipalities in Pinellas County. The challenge is this is our only landfill ever. We’re not going to get a new another one. We don’t have the land for it. So, it’s a constant juggle with about 900,000 residents.
We get a lot more in snowbird season so we have a whole lot of waste and one landfill.
We try to carefully manage what we get. We’re looking now at even reducing what we get and maximizing what goes to the waste-to-energy plant and what we can divert from the landfill. It’s a really interesting scenario to try and manage.
Waste360: What are your main responsibilities at Pinellas County Solid Waste?
Beth Burns: I primarily am the liaison to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection with our Title V permit and the greenhouse gas reporting that we do to EPA on the landfill and the waste-to-energy facility. I’ve moved into a lot of contract compliance because the operation of our waste-to-energy facility is contracted to an operator.
We’re looking at trying to divert more from the landfill. We’re looking at becoming more of a true integrated solid waste facility. Rather than having just waste-to-energy and rather than just having the landfill as our disposal option, we’ve started this bulky waste processing program, where we’re going to shred and reduce the size of some of the oversize items that we get.
For instance, we get a lot of boats. We’re on a peninsula. Most of the boats go to the landfill right now because we can’t fit them in the feed chute. We’re looking at a program that’s going to allow us to reduce the size of boats, sofas, mattresses and some of those bigger items so that rather than filling up our landfill with that we can reduce the size and we can actually burn it.
We’re looking also at doing some anaerobic digestion and coming up with a variety of ways to handle the waste.
Waste360: What is an experience that helped to take your career to the next level?
Beth Burns: I’ve always had the mindset that I want to help citizens and keep the air clean and all of the stuff that you hear from the tree huggers. When I got into this position I realized that I can do so much more than just emissions.
To toot Pinellas’ horn, we really do look at a holistic solution and try to get that message out in every way. I bought into that instantly.
I think what solidified my interest [in the industry] is the variety of things that you can do. Working for one employer, I’m not just a consultant who specializes in wetlands; I’m not just someone who specializes in procurement or contract management. I get to do all of it. It’s really unusual to be involved in every aspect of the business and I can do that here.
Waste360: What opportunities do you see for growth for your organization?
Beth Burns: Everyone is realizing that there’s not one solution anymore. We’re lucky to have the land space to implement a lot of programs that maybe other people don’t. For instance, we have a household electronics and chemical collection facility where citizens can come for free and they can drop off some of their household electronics waste and paint. We’ve got the waste-to-energy facility in the landfill. What we would like to look into is organics management and implementing the bulky waste program.
Developing a variety of answers is the only way we’re going to really move forward with waste management. It’s also the most environmentally responsible. I know a lot of landfills are not popular in the public’s eye now so it’s helpful to us to be able to answer citizens’ concerns and say, “We have each of these different options and this is what we’re doing for you. “
We’re lucky to have a Board of County Commissioners that realizes the challenges and has been supportive of a lot of our proposals.
Waste360: What advice would you give to a young person starting out in the industry?
Beth Burns: I would say, get to know as many of the people who are currently in the industry as you can and just listen.
Waste360: Why do you think this would be a good industry for young people to enter?
Beth Burns: It’s one of those things like nursing—it’s never going to go away. It’s job security. This is an industry that’s still developing and there’s a lot of innovation left to be discovered. It’s solid; it’s reliable. You’re always going to have a job, and you can do a lot of really good things.