SEBRING — Last week, Highlands County Commissioner Jim Brooks read an article in the latest edition of Ocala Magazine, “Will Recycling Get Trashed?”
“Recycling is in crisis,” Director of Public Works Darren Park told the Ocala City Council on Feb. 23. Glass will probably be removed from the list of recyclables, and it’s 25 percent of the city’s recycling stream.
Even worse, Ocala’s five-year contract with Waste Pro is up on April 1, and city councilors discussed increasing their tax from $1.68 per household to $8.75. Or the Ocala City Council could cease the city’s recycling program. But here’s the problem: “The recycling rate would plummet,” City Councilor John Zobler said. “Very few people would put their recycling in their cars and drive it to a location.”
Coincidentally, Waste Connections started distributing green-and-yellow recycling cans last week. Last year, then-County Engineer Ramon Gavarrete concluded that door-to-door recycling collection was the only way Highlands County could approach Florida’s goal of recycling 75 percent of the waste stream.
In fiscal year 2015-16, Highlands County residents recycled 2,400 tons of glass, metal, cardboard, paper and plastic, said Public Information Officer Gloria Rybinski.
The county received about $145,000 for those recyclables. Cardboard was trucked to GP Harmon Recycling in Dublin, Georgia. Old newspapers were sold to Recycling Services of Clearwater, Florida. Plastic went to QRS Recycling in Baltimore. Steel and aluminum cans went to Allied Steel in Tampa and Guaranteed Auto in Okeechobee.
That was about 26 percent of the total garbage stream, Rybinski said, which ranks Highlands in the middle of Florida’s 67 counties. Some counties, like Sarasota, divert 59 percent of their trash. Walton County saves only 4 percent.
“Most of the bigger counties and metro areas have been in it for some time,” Brooks said. “We’re probably one of the smaller counties in it.”
The European Union’s recycling goal is 50 percent by 2020. In 2010, Florida’s HB 7243 set a goal of recycling all of “at least 75 percent of the municipal solid waste” by 2020.
“I don’t think that will happen,” Brooks said of Highlands County.
Florida generates more than 32 million tons of municipal solid waste annually – two tons per resident per year. Yet Floridians collectively recycle only 28 percent of their solid waste.
What are the alternatives?
In January 2010, Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection suggested an incentive: communities should adopt a Pay-As-You-Throw program. It puts trash on the same basis as a utility: the less customers use, the less they pay.
“In a PAYT program, customers pay less for collection and disposal of MSW if they generate less – an incentive to fill up the recycling container rather than the trash can,” DEP wrote. “While there are about 7,000 PAYT programs nationwide, only a handful of communities in Florida have implemented this program.
“In Gainesville, the program netted an 18 percent decrease in the amount of waste collected, and a 25 percent increase in recyclables recovered during its first year alone. Even more, it resulted in a savings of $186,200 to customers.”
Dover, New Hampshire; Falmouth, Maine; Ft. Collins, Colorado; San Jose, California; South Kingstown, Rhode Island; Vancouver ,Washington; and Poquoson, Virginia reported first-year recycling increases from 25 percent to 69 percent.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency studied 1,300 communities across the country. The report concluded, “PAYT is the most effective single action that can increase recycling and diversion in the residential sector.”
Another alternative: Bucknell University economist Thomas Kinnaman told Plastic Solution Coalition in 2015 that recycling responsibility should be shifted from governments to manufacturers. They should determine what to recycle. “Primarily aluminum, other metals, and some forms of paper, notably cardboard and other sources of fiber.”
Brooks has no official report from the state or the Florida Association of Counties, but he thinks Highlands was among the last of the counties above the 100,000 population to begin a door-to-door recycling program.
The quandary is a supply-and-demand equation, Brooks said. The more cities and counties recycle, the less recyclable goods are worth.
“What’s the market right now for recyclables?” Commissioner Don Elwell asked Waste Connections Regional Manager Jim Wheatley in a Feb. 7 meeting.
“Awful,” Wheatley said. “Glass is worth nothing. Cardboard is worth half the price it was last year.”
“Can you address the glass? Because I’ve had that question asked,” Commissioner Ron Handley asked. Should residents put glass in their trash?
“Right,” Wheatley said.
“What is the primary reason for that?” Elwell asked.
“They can’t resell it,” Wheatley said. “They sold it before, and nobody wants it anymore. There’s an overabundance of it.”
“I understand (broken glass) can contaminate the whole load,” Elwell said.
“And it goes through the belt and clogs up the belt when we separate it,” Wheatley said.
Contamination drops the value of recycling. “The recycling stream has become increasingly polluted and less valuable,” the Washington Post reported in June 2015. Residents toss into recycling bins “almost anything rubber, metal, or plastic: garden hoses, clothes hangers, shopping bags, shoes, Christmas lights.”
Glass, the Post explained, probably should never have been recycled. If it breaks, everything in the cart is contaminated, and the cart is dumped into a truck with recyclables from hundreds of other carts. “Most of it has no value, and often costs money to haul away.”
In a controversial New York Times Magazine story called “Recycling Is Garbage,” science columnist John Tierney called recycling “a waste of time and money.” But, he told CBS This Morning, “It’s hard to persuade people of that, if you think it’s morally wrong to throw away garbage.”
Bottom line, did Highlands County start door-to-door recycling too late?
“Time will tell,” Brooks said. “But part of the original reason was to get it out of the waste steam.”
Standing across from Highlands County Landfill where buzzards circled a mountain of garbage, Wheatley used almost the same language.
“But we’ve got to recycle,” he added.