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Recycling evolves, grows at top Tampa Bay area companies

Gypsum at TECO

Gypsum at TECO.

Gypsum at TECO is sold after being used in the plant's scrubber system.


Gypsum is loaded for transport at TECO.

Gypsum at TECO.

Some of the largest companies in the Tampa Bay area are thinking outside the bin when it comes to recycling. 

While conventional recycling efforts, such as reducing and reusing paper, plastic, glass and metal are essential to helping keep our environment clean, local companies are doing more to lessen their environmental footprints in Florida and around the globe. 

One of Tampa’s most prominent utility companies, Tampa Electric (TECO), is among several local businesses at the forefront of innovative recycling breakthroughs in the Bay Area. TECO, which operates the Big Bend coal-fired power plant on the bay’s eastern shore in Apollo Beach, spearheads a program that recycles a material called gypsum. 

TECO spokesperson Cherie Jacobs explains what gypsum is, why the utility company produces tons of the material and how recycling it benefits our environment. 

“Gypsum is a yellow, powdery substance that’s the byproduct of the facility’s scrubbing process,” she says. “Gypsum is primarily used in drywall, and we sell most of our gypsum to our neighbor, National Gypsum. Gypsum is also used in concrete and can be utilized as a nutrient in fertilizer.” 

Not only does reusing the gypsum in wallboard and concrete products help support sustainable construction efforts in the Tampa Bay area, but it also keeps 200,000 tons of waste out of local landfills.  

In addition to gypsum, another material TECO recycles is fly ash. “Fly ash is a light-grey powdery material that, like gypsum, is used in concrete,” Jacobs explains. “It’s also used as a sandblasting agent.”  

Jacobs says that sulfuric acid, another agent TECO recycles, is used in fertilizer and water purification.

“The way we recycle products here is called ‘beneficial reuse,’ and it helps the economy, the environment and our commitment to the community,” she adds. 

While TECO continues expanding programs that reduce waste from energy production and turn it into new goods, a company called Covanta is working on turning old materials into energy. 

Resource recovery experts

Covanta, which operates five facilities in Florida, converts solid waste into clean, renewable energy. This process not only helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it also supports recycling through the recovery of metals. Covanta has operated a resource recovery facility in Hillsborough County for nearly 30 years and late last year assumed operation of a similar facility in Pinellas County that processes 3,150 tons of solid waste each day – enough to provide clean, renewable energy to approximately 40,000 homes. 

“Municipal solid waste is delivered to our facilities, stored in a bunker, and then transferred to a combustion chamber where self-sustaining combustion is maintained at extremely high temperatures,” explains James Regan, Director of Communications. “The heat from the combustion process boils water to create steam, and the steam is used directly to drive a turbine that generates and distributes electricity to the local grid.” 

Regan says there’s a lot at stake with waste-to-energy operations, primarily because it provides solutions to what he says are our planet’s three greatest challenges: renewable energy, climate change, and safe, sustainable solid waste disposal. 

“Energy-from-waste facilities provide a sustainable, safe alternative to landfills; complement recycling programs; and generate clean, renewable energy 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” 

One of the greatest benefits, Regan says, is greenhouse gas reduction. 

“For every ton of municipal solid waste processed at an energy-to-waste facility, the release of approximately one ton of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions into the atmosphere is prevented due to the avoidance of methane generation at landfills, the offset of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel electrical production, and the recovery of metals for recycling.” 

Regan also points out that metals recovery is indeed another huge benefit of the waste-to-energy process and represents a goal that should be better achieved on a nationwide scale. “It’s important to recognize that 250 million tons of waste is still going to landfills in the U.S. each year; in that total, we are throwing away over 7.5 million tons of metal annually – that’s the amount of steel in over 90 Golden Gates Bridges.” 

Reusing old materials for new purposes

While some recycling statistics may provide sober reminders on how much farther society still has to go in cleaning up after itself, commercial recycling has a lighter side, too. The Adventure Island waterpark in Tampa is a local business that literally puts a new spin on recycling. Park spokesman Travis Claytor says that wood, metal and concrete from a recently demolished attraction called the Gulf Scream were recycled before the park made way for the new Colossal Curl water slide that opened this past March. 

Across Malcolm McKinley Drive at sister park Busch Gardens Tampa, similar sustainable practices have been in use for years. “For our triple-launch coaster, Cheetah Hunt, we recycled two buildings by converting the old monorail building into the new queue house and the old Clydesdale barn into the new cheetah housing area,” he says. 

When the Jungala Bengal tiger habitat and children’s play area opened, steel from the park’s iconic Python roller coaster was scrapped and turned into rebar. 

The park’s most recent attraction, Pantopia, teems with recycled materials. 

“In our newest retail establishment, Painted Camel Bazaar, we used lumber from the old gift shop to make the new fixtures and used the wood spools that the Falcon’s Fury (drop tower ride) cables were shipped on to make display counters.” 

Standing proudly in front of Pantopia Theatre, where the park’s Opening Night Critters show plays to crowds every day, two towering sculptures of a cat and dog artistically revive a plethora of recycled components such as old metal tools, construction materials, and other waste products. 

According to Claytor, even the real-life animals get in on the recycling action. “We take ground water that flows into the trench on Cheetah hunt, filter the water, and use it to put water back into the hippo habitat.” 

Individuals engage in recycling too

While not every business may be able to convert tons of waste into energy, drywall or even new thrill rides, there is a resource out there for those who want to get in on the action and help their commercial enterprises become more environmentally friendly. 

Recycle Florida Today is an Ocala-based organization that since 1990 has been the leading voice in the Sunshine State for recycling. Executive Director Heather Armstrong says that while the organization’s goals are big, taking tiny steps can help all of us in the Florida make a big difference. 

“Inclusive of the Tampa Bay Area, the entire state of Florida has a 75 percent recycling goal by 2020,” she says. How can we get to that point in a few years? “The goal is to increase our state’s recycling rate by working with state and local governments, trade organizations, businesses, schools, other industries and residents,” she says. 

When Armstrong explains the reasons that meeting such lofty recycling goals are vitally important, it’s clear how the effort affects all of us. 

“Recycling allows for us to take resources and give them a second purpose. To name a few, it helps our environment, conserves natural resources and [saves] land.” 

She goes onto specify just how those differences can be tangibly measured. 

“Recycling reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills, saves energy from processing new virgin materials, lessens the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, and more. Recycling helps our Earth today for a better and sustainable future for generations to come.”  

Armstrong suggests that those who are looking to get in on recycling check with their local municipalities, as each offers its own variety of recycling programs. 

“[Local county or city governments] will be best able to assist you in your recycling efforts by providing you with information on what can be done in your home or business, where recycling centers are located near you, and what materials are accepted, and they can also answer other frequently asked recycling questions,” Armstrong says. Local recycling options can range from curbside collection to drop-off locations and special event collections to other programs within the community. 

Armstrong encourages individuals and small businesses alike to make that first step toward recycling. “Recycling is not only easy, but it’s also rewarding on both ends.” 

Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

 Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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