Does the SWA own your solid waste?

There is plenty of misinformation circulating on social media about the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County’s (SWA) ownership of solid waste. This misinformation was primarily disseminated by several news and social media platforms that were reporting on a private business entity which was/is running a solid waste collection and processing operation in Palm Beach County (County) without the required permits, and which was the subject of complaints and a code violation for objectionable odors. Contrary to claims by the business owner that the SWA shut down this business, the SWA chose not to pursue enforcement or fines even though the SWA has the legal right to do so, but nevertheless directed it to cease and desist.

Here are the facts on the ownership of solid waste in Palm Beach County:

The SWA is a dependent special governmental district that is legislatively charged with the safe, economic and environmentally-conscious disposal of solid waste generated and existing within the County. The SWA was created in 1975 by an act of the Florida Legislature (75-473, Laws of Florida) and codified by 2001-331, Laws of Florida (Download PDF), as amended, also known as the Palm Beach County Solid Waste Act (Act). Section 2 of the Act provides for the declaration of legislative intent.

Contrary to the circulating misinformation, the SWA does not claim ownership of any solid waste inside personal property. However, once the waste is collected it is required to be delivered exclusively to the SWA system, which includes facilities owned by the SWA and facilities permitted by the SWA. The SWA’s statutory Flow Control powers date back to its foundation in 1975. 

Section 6. (2) of The Palm Beach County Solid Waste Act (Download PDF) states:

“Adopt a resource recovery and waste management program for Palm Beach County that shall provide for the transportation, storage, separation, processing, recovery, recycling, or disposal of solid waste generated or existing within the County and modify and update such program or plan as necessary or as may be required by law.”

Section 6. (19) of The Palm Beach County Solid Waste Act states:

“As necessary to carry out its resource recovery and/or disposal plans or programs when necessary to carry out any other provision of this act, require that all wastes collected by public or private agencies from any municipality or unincorporated area of the County be transported to Authority-designated processing and disposal facilities in a manner and form as may be mandated in accordance with this act, particularly paragraphs (2) and (8) of this section. This act shall not be construed to preclude public or private agencies from operating permitted transfer stations, provided that solid waste transferred or transported therefrom shall be delivered to Authority-designated processing and disposal facilities as set forth in this section.”

Section 7. (2) of The Palm Beach County Solid Waste Act states:

“It is the purpose of this section to require all persons within the County and all governmental agencies to use exclusively the solid waste system operated and maintained by the Authority or designated by the Authority for the disposal of all solid waste generated within both the incorporated and unincorporated areas of the County;”

This part in statute is commonly referred to as “Flow Control.” Flow Control ensures that solid waste generated or existing in the County, and the revenue associated with it, is delivered to the system designed, constructed and operated to manage it consistent with federal, state and local laws, regulations, ordinances and rules to protect public health and the environment. The diversion of solid waste, e.g., food waste, from the SWA system or facilities permitted or designated by the SWA is prohibited, as is the operation of an unpermitted solid waste management facility. The SWA exercises its Flow Control powers uniformly against all entities, large or small.

How is Flow Control enforced?

Statutory Flow Control is implemented through permitting by SWA Rule 1, Solid Waste Management Facility Permits and Procedures, and SWA Rule 5, Solid Waste Collection and Disposal, and additionally by contract with the SWA’s waste collection contracts and by municipal interlocal agreements. SWA permits are required to collect solid waste and to operate a solid waste management facility in Palm Beach County.

Section 12. (2) of The Palm Beach County Solid Waste Act:

“No person shall operate, maintain, construct, expand, or modify any resource recovery or waste management facility without first having applied for and received a valid operating permit from the Authority.” 

These permits and the conditions within them ensure that all waste generated in the County is managed in accordance with the SWA plan, and is in full compliance with all laws, regulations, ordinances and rules. Most importantly, these permits and their enforcement ensure the health, safety and welfare of the public is protected and these facilities are located, designed, constructed, operated and maintained to protect the environment and prevent public nuisance. 

Why is Flow Control so important? 

In addition to Flow Control being authorized and required by the Act, the maintenance of Flow Control is also a requirement of the SWA’s Indenture of Trust to protect the interests of the bondholders and maintain our bond ratings. It is also essential to maintaining stable rates paid by the residents and businesses in the County.

Systems such as the SWA’s are expensive to construct and are financed with revenue bonds supported by a pledge of the revenues of the system. To secure bond financing at the lowest possible rates, and to ensure the successful operation of the system and the availability of sufficient revenues to pay the principal and interest on the debt and meet the SWA’s financial obligations, the SWA must have a secure waste stream and secure revenue stream. Statutory Flow Control is the means of achieving that. In short, the SWA’s state-of-the-art integrated solid waste management system likely never could have been built without it.

In the absence of Flow Control, solid waste could be diverted from the SWA system to a less expensive disposal option, like a regional landfill, that would not satisfy the recycling and resource recovery responsibilities of the SWA, as defined in Section 2 (Declaration of Legislative Intent) of the Act.

What about food waste composting?

The SWA allows, without a permit, and encourages backyard composting (residents composting their own food waste and yard waste), and also encourages institutions (country clubs, schools, restaurants, etc.) to compost food waste generated onsite and use the finished compost onsite, as long as no material is brought in from offsite. But, in accordance with Flow Control, once food waste leaves the property it is generated on destined for a solid waste management function, which includes composting, it must be delivered to the Authority.

The SWA does not currently allow the commercial door-to-door collection of food waste for a fee, the diversion of it from the system and/or the accumulation of it at an unpermitted location in competition with the SWA. The SWA does not currently issue permits for food waste composting facilities. No business, large or small, is authorized to compost food waste in the County as a competing entity.

So, the diversion of food waste from the system is a violation of the Act and the Indenture because it has the potential to undermine the financial stability of the system. Some argue that if the operation is small, what’s the big deal? It is important to know that the SWA has been contacted by several entities that have sought to divert food waste on a large scale to anaerobic digestion or some other process. We have consistently told them no. If we allow others to do it, then we are potentially opening the door to larger-scale operations, which would be detrimental to the financial stability of the system. Again, we enforce our rules uniformly.

In closing, the SWA has invested considerable public dollars in a state-of-the-art integrated solid waste management system to manage all the waste generated in Palm Beach County. Thanks to this system, Palm Beach County has the highest recycling rate in the State at 80%, and diverts 77% of the waste generated in the County from the landfill. The SWA has capacity in our modern waste-to-energy facilities to manage food waste, and in fact convert it into clean renewable energy, and while capacity exists there is no need to divert it from this system. When there is a need or desire to manage food waste differently, the SWA can do it in an environmentally-sound and cost-effective manner.

Reference: State Library and Archives of Florida