Palm Beach: Treasures and Trash

Palm Beach is famous as the home of railroad builder Henry Flagler, architect Addison Mizner, The Breakers resort, and Worth Avenue shops.  Just last week I wrote about the art scene. On Monday 28 January I saw Palm Beach from a quite different perspective. Some friends from the Quail Ridge Garden Club and I took a tour of the Palm Beach County Solid Waste Authority, aka Mount Trashmore, a huge facility several miles west of the glamor neighborhoods, easily identified by the swarms of black birds feasting on leftovers.

Palm Beach County, one of the largest counties east of the Mississippi, is home to 1.3 million people. Each person discards an average of 6 pounds per day. That’s tons and tons of garbage and recyclables arriving 6 days a week from 6 transfer stations in various sections of the county. As the big trucks dumped their loads on the tipping floor and enormous machines began the sorting process, I felt like I was watching a mass funeral for multiple shopping expeditions. The adjacent Waste-to-Energy plant burns about half of the garbage, generating electricity for the grid. The rest is buried in carefully constructed trenches that augment Mount Trashmore. No human hands touch the trash, but there are spotters to look out for propane tanks and other potential explosives. By the end of each long day, it’s all gone, the floor is clean and they are ready to start anew. Faced with daily mountains of trash, how could our guides project such cheer?

One reason for their pride is a recycling program headquartered in a separate large building. Palm Beach uses a “dual stream” system that collects bottles/cans separately from paper/cardboard. The resulting bales of smashed materials are rated “A” and bring higher prices than those of “single stream” collections like ours in Arlington Virginia, in which paper and cardboard tend to be contaminated by liquids and broken glass. My takeaway was the importance of keeping recyclables clean and dry. But Palm Beach’s bins are small and open to rain and sprinklers; Arlington’s single bins are large and lidded. Which place has the best system?

Surprising fact: each year the facility sifts out over $100,000 worth of coins, but they have not yet figured out how to capture the hidden dollar bills that now go up in smoke. We sat on benches made from former milk jugs and considered handbags crocheted from video tapes or woven from gum wrappers. The Waste Authority’s Greenway Trail System has miles of trails made from recycled materials, that allow people of all ages to observe the birds and wildlife that flourish amidst all the reclamation activities. I hope to go back soon to take photos of the formerly endangered roseate spoonbills, snail kites and wood storks that have found sanctuary far from the “Gold Coast.”


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