Alachua County recently made significant strides toward a greener Gainesville. On Jan. 25, county commissioners voted to devote $400,000 to the planning and researching of a new system of solid waste management.

Alachua County’s proposed sustainable solid waste program would boost the county’s current 40 percent recycling rate to 75 percent by 2020. This is necessary to comply with the recent state-wide recycling mandate, part of Florida’s Energy, Climate Change, and Economic Security Act of 2008. The plan seems almost too good to be true.

Currently, Alachua County’s dump trucks dispose of all waste at an out-of-county landfill, a 72-mile journey made 8,000 times per year.

Although the county has a materials recovery facility, only about 400 tons (roughly 65 percent) of Alachua County’s garbage is processed there daily. Its full potential has yet to be realized.

With the envisioned plan, the facility would be able to process 100% of the county’s waste at this county owned-and-operated location versus outsourcing roughly 200 tons to private Emerald Waste Services (EWS) facilities.

Half of the allotted $400,000 will go toward the pre-planning of a renovated, more efficient materials recovery facility. This includes finding the best-fit engineering firm. The remaining $200,000 will be used for the drafting and finalizing of construction plans for an organics recycling facility.

The facility currently exists as a solid waste management and disposal facility. Converting the disposal facility to a resource recovery system will minimize landfill waste. The new system would allow materials that were formerly viewed as waste, such as wooden pallets or pizza boxes, to be used in the production of goods, which will decrease the amount of waste hauled off to the landfill.

Under the planned sustainable solid waste program, the mixed waste would first be sent to the materials recovery facility where it would be thoroughly dissected, ensuring that every potentially recyclable or reusable component is extracted. The organic waste and other recyclables can then be relocated to their respective recycling management plants. Organic waste, which includes food scraps, cardboard, paper and yard waste, will be sent to the organics recycling facility.

All other recyclables will be sent to a resource recovery park where they will be fashioned into recycled products, creating 20-100 green jobs.

A closer look at the heaping mounds of garbage at the waste management facility will reveal seemingly inconsequential organic waste, including dirt, leaves and food.

“[That] massive bundle of old carpet could even be processed and made into fertilizer [for algae],” Ron Bishop, Alachua County Solid Waste Engineer, pointed out. This nutritious algae food is a key component in mass-harvesting algae as a sustainable alternative to diesel and jet fuels.

“In a sense we are trying to mimic nature. In nature, what one organism or system rejects, another can use. We will be working on systems that can use materials and reuse them over and over again,” Bishop said.

Organic waste will be composted aerobically and anaerobically. Initially, the organics will be digested with microbes in the absence of oxygen. This process produces energy in the form of biogas (primarily methane) and a nutrient-rich soil, both of which have market potential.

Anaerobic composting reduces organic material volume by at least 50 percent. The remaining material continues on to be aerobically composted.

After organic waste has gone through both stages of composting, 95 percent of its original mass will have been converted into reusable and marketable products. The county is currently conducting a site study to determine who would purchase the products. These sales will contribute to a projected 25-year revenue of $4.6 million.

The waste management and disposal facility’s transformation into a materials recovery facility is estimated to cost somewhere between $5,000 and $3 million. This gap is a matter of policy.

If all waste sorting depended on manual labor, remodeling costs would be about $5,000. This sum would cover the costs of building a safety wall to separate workers from the dump trucks hauling in recyclables. This option would have a low capital cost and create about 20 jobs, but would not maximize productivity.

On the other end of the financial spectrum is full mechanization of the facility, which would cost $3 million.

Between full manual labor and complete mechanization exists a point of optimal efficiency. This third conceptualized approach would utilize machinery to preliminarily process waste before sending it through a conveyor belt studded with workers. From this point, workers would manually extract all recyclables.

The program is ready to go and has an estimated completion date in 2016. However, its success hinges on political cooperation.

“There are some political decisions that have to be made by commissioners, including what type of organics recycling facility should be constructed and where it should be constructed,” Bishop said, “It’s all dependent on final cost estimate. Ultimately, it is the decision of the county and city commission.”

With similar waste and recycling programs in other states across the country, such as Oregon and California, Alachua’s proposed sustainable solid waste program is promising. Alachua County will serve as a model to other counties, pushing the state towards its 75 percent recycling goal.