By Rich Pollack
At the Boca Raton Airport, trash has become a very big deal.
Since the airport’s new U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility opened a few weeks ago, the airport has been burning trash coming off international flights in a new on-site, medical-grade incinerator, reducing everything placed inside to ash.
The process of destroying any foreign materials that could bring disease or blight, or create other problems in the United States, is an arduous and detailed one, required and overseen by both customs and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“One of the highest priorities of the USDA and customs is to make sure that no contaminants enter the country through trash,” said Airport Director Clara Bennett. “That’s why we have such strict procedures in place to make sure everything is burned before it goes into the community.”
Boca Raton is one of only a few airports in the state — and the only one in South Florida — to have an incinerator to burn trash coming off airplanes that cross international airspace.
Other airports, including Palm Beach International, Fort Lauderdale Executive and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International, use a hauling service to dispose of garbage.
But as plans were being developed for the new customs facility, Boca Raton officials determined it would be most cost effective — and more efficient — to purchase the 1,830-degree incinerator rather than contract with a hauler.
Officials estimate that having a customs- and USDA-certified hauler come to the airport to remove the international trash twice a week would cost about $20,000 a year, almost as much as the $26,000 incinerator, especially since there would be an additional charge for extra pickups.
“This is a much more cost-effective process,” Bennett said, adding that other airports are in contact with Boca Raton to learn more about the incinerator. “The unit will probably pay for itself in a year.”
Since the incinerator is on-site — in a locked area adjacent to the customs facility — Boca Raton Airport staff can also be more responsive and can burn airplane trash, including food waste, on relatively short notice.
All seven of the Boca Raton Airport Authority’s full-time staff members have been trained in a process, which along with other details, was hammered out during a six-month period in cooperation with customs and USDA officials.
As part of the process, the Boca Raton Airport is now an officially regulated USDA garbage-processing facility.
As a result, taking out the trash at the customs center is a lot more complicated than just bringing the garbage barrel out to the curb for pickup.
According to airport Operations Manager Travis Bryan, trash from each plane coming from out of the country — usually between 15 or 20 a week — must be placed in a special trash bag 3 mils thick, then sealed and deposited in specially marked trash cans outside the customs center. Once full, the trash barrels are padlocked.
Although the airport staff has 72 hours to dispose of the trash, Bryan says members of his three-person operations crew check the cans every day and burn the trash when the cans are full.
“Everything we put in has to be reduced to ash,” Bryan said, adding that trash will be burned until it meets the requirement.
A log of each burn is kept and a detailed process is outlined should an accidental spill occur before the trash makes it to the incinerator.
Bennett said she is in the early stages of looking into the possibility of working with veterans organizations and scouting organizations to use the incinerator to properly dispose of retired American flags.
So far, the incinerator has been kept pretty busy with the new customs facility handling 61 flights with 215 passengers in its first four weeks of operation.
“It’s about what we expected,” Bennett said.
Among the flights coming into Boca Raton are those that originated at airports in Ireland, Portugal, Canada, Venezuela and the Bahamas.