Your Trash Ain’t Nothin’ But Cash!


One definition of sustainable living is a lifestyle that attempts to reduce an individual or society’s use of the Earth’s natural and personal resources. We all use some of the planet’s material every day, generating waste in the process. We put this refuse in our kitchen and bathroom wastebaskets, transfer that to recycling and garbage bins, and sleep peacefully. When the weekly trucks collect the containers, most Lee County residents never think about its final destination, what happens to it once it leaves the curb, and if their plastic water bottles and old newspapers will ever benefit them or anyone else ever again. Garbage is the ultimate out-of-sight, out-of-mind product. However, the Lee County Solid Waste Division has been developing sustainable methods of dealing with the waste stream for more than twenty years.

That destination for waste and recyclables is the Lee County Resource Recovery Facility on 260 acres off of Buckingham Road, of which it uses approximately 75 acres for its award-winning integrated solid waste management program.

“Lee County is somewhat unusual in that it manages the local waste stream through a series of public-private partnerships and disposes of material in publicly-owned facilities,” says Molly Schweers, Solid Waste Coordinator. “Residents retain the inherent value of the waste material, with proceeds returned to the system.”

The Division’s goal is to pull from the waste stream everything reusable, then burn the lowest value material to produce electricity at the county’s Waste to Energy plant, with the resulting ash and minimal items such as sheet rock and dock pilings left over for landfill burial. Even after separating recyclables and other valuable materials, the plant’s three large combustion units operate 24-hours-a-day, 7 days-a-week to keep up with the more than 2,100 tons of trash brought in each workday.

“Going full-bore, the furnaces burn 1,836 tons-per-day, so they must run nights and weekends to keep up,” says Molly. “They burn hot and clean to ensure healthy air quality, and each unit receives a thorough cleaning every six months to maintain these standards.”

Huge metal claws pull garage from large piles to feed the furnaces. Each “grab” hauls between 4,000 to 6,000 pounds, enough to power a Southwest Florida home for six weeks. Operators comb through the garbage, “fluffing” each load before burning, to remove potentially dangerous items like propane tanks. It takes approximately 90 minutes to move through the 1,800-degree process, “and then we mechanically sort the ash as it can have quite a bit of metal that we will eventually sell,” explains Molly. Two large turbines continuously churn, feeding power to the electrical grid.

The Recycle of Life

Curbside recycling is another essential element of the system. The program began as a pilot project for 800 homes in the Whiskey Creek community and is now available to every Lee County household. Recycling revolves around five basic commodities: paper, cardboard, metal cans, glass, and plastic containers #1 through 7, but even this brief list is fraught with potential peril. “Often our customers replace ‘recycling’ with ‘wish-cycling’,” Molly says with a smile.

She cites as an example shredded paper, as it cannot be properly sorted through the county system, so it becomes trash among the other recyclables. Lee County Solid Waste takes appropriately numbered plastic containers, but not all plastics. “The most common offender is plastic film, with plastic bags the number one problem,” explains Molly. “Plastic bags, pool covers, strapping, and garden hoses can wrap around and severely damage the recycle-sorting equipment. Clothes are reusable, not recyclable, yet are often in the bins. This is why we sort through everything at several stages in the process.”

Waste system items change with societal trends: “The amount of recycled newspapers is down 25 to 30 percent, and that corresponds to the decrease in home subscriptions,” says Molly. “Bed mattresses on the other hand go up every year due to successful marketing. Older generations replaced theirs roughly once every quarter-century, but that industry broadcasts that now you must do it at least every 8 years. That threefold increase equates to a similar rise in the amount of mattresses entering the waste stream.”

Everything is Of Value

Yard waste is a year-round material in Southwest Florida. Sustainable disposal can include burning it to create electricity, shredding it for mulch, or combining the mulch with biosolids from the county’s wastewater treatment plants to make compost. The creation of composting takes two waste items and diverts them from disposal to make a new usable product.

Construction and demolition material make up approximately one-third of Florida’s waste stream by weight. These are sorted by type at the Resource Recovery Center, where concrete gets crushed and reused as aggregate in future mixes. Metals, plastic and wood all find a second life when segregated and responsibly recycled rather than sent to a landfill.

Waste to Energy tipping floor, showing where trash trucks empty their loads
Waste to Energy tipping floor, showing where trash trucks empty their loads

Americans generate roughly one ton of refuse per person annually and Lee County residents are no exception. Each household produces close to a ton of waste including trash, recyclables and yard waste. The remainder comes from businesses and establishments that residents frequent. Lee’s population has doubled since the advent of recycling in 1990, shows no foreseeable abatement, and serves as a temporary home for thousands more tourists and seasonal residents. While Lee County currently has capacity within the system to keep up with this community growth, Molly stresses that the ultimate solution is the most simple: stop creating so much waste!

“The Solid Waste Division is always working to educate the public to be more mindful of what and how they recycle, as well as how to minimize their overall waste output,” she summarizes. “This is the impetus of our new ‘Recycle Smart – Five for The Cart’ campaign. If our customers better understand the disposal process, we are confident they will produce less waste and do a better job of recycling versus ‘wish-cycling’.” To increase your own awareness, see the Solid Waste website at

The Lee County Solid Waste Division: There is no such thing as trash; everything is of value!


Gary Mooney

Photos courtesy of Lee County Solid Waste