Is recycling in Florida a waste?
Two years ago, the Central Florida city of Deltona found that its curbside recycling program cost too much and was generating too few environmental benefits. The city paid $80 per ton to process waste paper that sold for $5 a ton, for example. The market for recyclables was so slow that material stacked up, deteriorated beyond use and wound up in a landfill anyway.
City leaders began considering an idea they knew would be heretical to generations raised on the virtue of recycling: The 90,000 citizens of Deltona might do better by just throwing their recyclables in the garbage.
Ultimately, like four other Florida cities wrestling with the same pressures, Deltona eliminated curbside recycling.
“It was really hard for residents to accept,” Mayor Heidi Herzberg says. “I think it was really hard for the school kids. The first time I took my cans and threw them in the garbage, it was kind of an emotional thing.”
Deltona, like cities everywhere in the U.S. in recent years, discovered that hard realities underlie recycling’s virtuous veneer. With all the attention paid to the pandemic in 2020, few noticed Florida had failed to meet the goal the Legislature set in 2010 of recycling 75% of all its garbage by 2020. The goal — enshrined in a law — was only an aspiration, with no penalties for failure. Good thing. How far Florida fell short will be known this month, when the state releases its 2020 numbers. But state environmental officials already have said the goal is unachievable. The majority of the state’s larger counties won’t come close.
Officially, the state recycled 52% of its trash in 2019, but that figure is misleading because of what it counts as recycling — a reality far removed from consumers’ vision of plastic bottles tossed in the curbside bin and getting remanufactured into new bottles.
One example: The 9% of Florida garbage that gets incinerated in plants that burn trash to generate energy counts as recycling in Florida. Another: Glass that’s put in recycle bins often becomes landfill cover. The state counts that as recycling, too. The state also considers yard waste as recycling if it’s dumped in a landfill that has a system for capturing the gas from decomposition. Recovered debris from construction and demolition work also counts toward the state’s recycling goal. The state looks worse when it comes to recycling traditional materials like cardboard boxes and paper, plastic water bottles, cans and glass jars. Only 8% of rigid plastics in Florida and a quarter of its aluminum and steel cans get recycled, according to a study by U.K.-based sustainability consultancy Eunomia for Colorado-based can maker Ball Corp.
That study looked at packaging only and measured what gets readied for turning into new products, not at what’s collected. Each year, Florida generates some 388 pounds of packaging material per capita. More than half — 215 pounds — goes to landfills or incinerators, and 173 pounds (45%) gets shipped off to be manufactured into new products, Eunomia says. That ranks Florida 21st nationally. It’s only that high because Florida recycles a lot of cardboard. Skip counting cardboard, and Florida falls to 27th.
In 2008, the state set a goal of recycling 75% of its recyclable waste. Two years later, Lee Constantine, then a state senator, sponsored a law that expanded the state’s recycling goal to 75% of all garbage. Constantine, now a Seminole County Commissioner, says he knew the state would have a tough time meeting it. But he explains that with the official recycling rate in the high 20% range at that time, “clearly something had to happen.” Recycling, he says, “is beneficial to the environment, protects natural resources and basically makes citizens feel good about themselves, to be honest.”
Supply, but little demand
China and other developing nations are key players in the economics of recycling. They bought the Western world’s waste plastic, paper and cardboard — along with a hefty share of mixed-in garbage and food waste that’s known as reject, residue and contaminant in the trade. Florida exported $28 million in plastic waste in 2014, says Ken Roberts, president of Miami-based trade tracker WorldCity. The value of Florida’s exported paper and cardboard waste, meanwhile, reached $144 million in 2016. China was by far the biggest buyer of both commodities from Florida.
Deltona, as other cities and counties did, had contracted with a privately owned material recovery plant to process its recyclables and sell the material. Sales of bales of plastic, cardboard, paper or can waste covered the cost of service, and Deltona shared in the profit. The city funded scholarships with the surplus — to the tune of $85,000 a year at one point.
Then, in 2018, China got out of the business of importing Western trash. The bottom fell out. Waste Management communications director Dawn McCormick offers a before-and-after: The blended value of recycled materials in 2017 was $105 a ton. In 2019, it was $31. “2019 was the worst recycling market in global history,” says Zachary Kirstein, vice president and founder of 4G Recycling in Deerfield Beach, a recycling services company.
By 2020, Florida’s plastic waste exports had fallen 71% to $8 million, Roberts says. China went from the No. 1 market for Florida waste plastic to 78th last year, when it bought just $22,000 worth. In Deltona, the recyclables money that had gone for scholarships dwindled. Recycling went from a revenue generator for local governments to a money loser.
China’s exit laid bare recycling’s problems. Headlines in trade, general and even environmental publications signaled a re-examination: “The Recycling Industry in America is Broken. … Stop Obsessing About Recycling. … Is Plastic Recycling a Lie?”
“I’ve been an environmentalist my entire life,” says Marshall Staiman, a Broward businessman who for decades consulted for companies on reducing their waste costs. “I grew up in the recycling business. I’m disillusioned.”
Says Jennifer Jones, director of Florida Gulf Coast University’s Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education, “Recycling is not a solution for the future. Period. It never has been.”
As a commodity, recycled materials always face competition from virgin material. Aluminum cans have value; the financial viability of other waste varies. And just because something can be recycled doesn’t mean there’s a market for it, says Victor Storelli of Storelli Recycling in Fort Lauderdale. He remains enthusiastic about recycling but adds, it’s a question of costs and “there’s got to be a demand.”
Compounding the difficulty: People put garbage in recycling bins. Republic Waste’s general manager for North Florida, Bill Brinkley, says the level of contamination in recycling loads delivered to Republic’s North Florida plant runs 20% — too high, but rates in other regions run even higher. China wasn’t picky when it was buying, and contamination mattered less then. Now, most material goes to domestic buyers who want nearly pristine bales of cardboard, metal and plastic sorted by plastic grade and color. The private companies that handle city and county recycling programs charge governments extra for recyclable material that’s contaminated by residents who don’t sort carefully. The penalties accentuate curbside recycling’s flip from revenue generator to financial drain.
Deerfield Beach, in north Broward, once netted more than $50 a ton from curbside recycling. In the aftermath of China’s pullout, Deerfield found it was losing money on recycling and paying penalties for excess contamination, which reached nearly 50%. The city launched a 12-week, $25,000, award-winning education outreach campaign to educate residents in proper recycling. It didn’t work. “It’s a tough nut to crack,” says city sustainable management director Chad Grecsek.
At its highest, curbside recycling cost Deerfield nearly $100 per ton for that 50-50 mix of recyclables and garbage. Regular garbage disposal cost about $42 per ton. The city kept three recycling drop-off locations open but suspended curbside recycling. Deltona, Coral Springs in Broward, Lady Lake in Lake County and the district that handles waste hauling for The Villages in Central Florida also dropped curbside.
Most cities with curbside service, however, chose to keep it as a kind of subsidized utility. Prices of some recycled waste have stabilized, lessening the pressure on government finances. In Orlando, the cost of processing recyclables and the cost of disposing of garbage at a landfill are nearly the same, and recycling saves landfill space, says city solid waste division manager Mike Carroll. He still supports the 75% goal. “You have to pick an ambitious target, or you will rest on your laurels,” he says. Orlando sent 22,406 tons, or 28%, of its waste stream to recycling last year, though 62% of that recycling tonnage was yard waste.
“It did kick start it,” Constantine says of Florida recycling and the 75% goal. But it always represented a reach. If Florida recycled every water bottle, laundry jug, glass jar, newspaper and cardboard box, it would only be recycling 29% of its waste. Construction and demolition debris is Florida’s biggest trash stream by weight — 32.8% — with yard waste another 11.4% and food 6.9%.
No clear choices
Communities are rethinking recycling. For one, some observers say there should be more emphasis on the first two words of the old “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” slogan. There’s also an argument that the plastics industry sold recycling as a way to put the burden on consumers rather than producers. Consumers easily are misled by material touted as recyclable that actually isn’t. That three-arrow symbol with a number on plastics? “You think it’s telling you it’s recyclable,” says Florida Gulf Coast’s Jones. “It’s not. They’re telling you what grade of plastic it is. The industry had done a good job of shifting responsibility.”
The right environmental choice often isn’t obvious. Even the relative value and costs of thin plastic grocery bags compared to reusable tote bags can be complicated. Producing thin plastic grocrery bags has the lowest environmental impact among the alternatives, and they can be recycled — but only if they’re returned to the grocer since city recycling programs can’t handle them.
If reused a time or two at home as trash can liners, or to carry lunch to work, or recycled at the grocer, the thin bags stack up more favorably against reusable totes. Totes can be forgotten at home, have hygiene issues, and must be used at least 11 times to outperform thin bags. Further complicating the choice is how far each type was transported to get to the consumer and whether it was made from recycled material.
A 2019 study from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality reported that in more than half the cases it examined, packaging that couldn’t be recycled was better for the environment than containers that could be. Example: The foil that some coffee brands are sold in can’t be recycled, but in terms of energy consumed to make it, greenhouse gases generated and waste, it’s better for the environment than buying coffee in recyclable plastic tubs.
Some advocates want to ban single-use plastics or tax them. Some support “extended producer responsibility” laws that shift the financial or physical burden to manufacturers for the packaging when consumers are through with it. The Ball Corp./Eunomia study says charging higher landfill fees improves recycling rates and makes recycling more attractive financially. Recycling rates also improve if communities adopt a refundable container deposit law known as a “bottle bill.” Deposit laws generate a usable, contaminant-free stream. The study also argues for evaluating recycling beyond weight by adding greenhouse gas emissions and commodity value as measures. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says measuring by weight isn’t efficient or effective.
Some manufacturers, meanwhile, are developing more low-impact products or using more recycled material. Orlando-based Tupperware Brands recently expanded its offerings made from plastic waste.
Researchers are working on ways to make recycling more efficient by, for example, finding ways to break down plastics. The state DEP has suggested Florida do more outreach, help local governments and aid investment in recycling plants and in developing markets for recycled material. It says the 75%, despite the missed 2020 deadline, remains a goal.
By suspending curbside recycling, Deltona saved $714,819 a year and 56,700 pounds a year of carbon dioxide generated from the hauling trucks. The city set aside $35,000 a year for the scholarship fund. Residents appeared willing to pay more to keep recycling, but, Herzberg says, “no matter what you charged people, the stuff wasn’t being repurposed. It’s going to the landfill anyway and the increase in cost — for what?”
Glass: A Business Bust
Try to find a Florida materials processor with something good to say about the curbside recycling of glass — inevitably shattered, expensive to transport, dangerous to workers and destructive to trucks and machinery as it breaks into tiny pieces and becomes gritty. There are few buyers in Florida, and recycling it is of negligible environmental benefit. Some becomes an ingredient in highway paint stripes. A sizable share goes to landfills where it’s used for the required nightly cover of that day’s dumped trash. Aluminum can be recycled nearly infinitely. Plastic’s fibers shorten with each reuse and thus gets “down-cycled” into carpet or curb stops. Plastic winds up buried or burned after two or three incarnations.
Smaller = Less Waste
Most small counties generate less municipal waste per resident than larger counties. In 2018, the 36 Florida counties with more than 100,000 people accounted for 45 million of the 47 million tons of garbage generated in Florida, according to a Florida Senate staff analysis. Among Florida’s 10 smallest counties (Dixie, Union, Calhoun, Gulf, Jefferson, Hamilton, Glades, Franklin, Liberty, Lafayette) only Hamilton, Glades and Franklin generate more than 1 ton of municipal waste per resident.
A Clueless Citizenry
People are inept recyclers. “If you walked down the street and looked in people’s recycling bins, they have no idea what they are doing,” says Marshall Staiman of Fort Lauderdale, who headed a recycling firm for decades. “The loads are coming into the recycling plants very contaminated.”
Some blame complicated instructions on recycling bins that make it hard to know what’s recyclable and what’s garbage. Some say even committed recyclers don’t take time to learn the system.
Regardless who’s responsible, contamination raises costs and ruins the value of true recyclable material. Recycling plant infrastructure — conveyor belts, air blasters, screens, optical sorters for different color plastics and artificial intelligence tech — are designed to handle bottles, jugs, cans, cardboard and newspapers, not the trash that people, using a polite industry term, “wish cycle.”
“We’ve got to get away from that ‘90% of everything we touch is recyclable,’ ” says Bill Brinkley, general manager of waste company Republic Service’s North Florida area. Waste handlers and government managers emphasize such slogans as “clean, dry, empty” and “when in doubt, throw it out.” In reality, people throw it in: Bowling balls, hangers, engine parts, clothes, pillows, plastic toys, hoses, fuel tanks, lawn furniture, the proverbial kitchen sink and — particularly troublesome for operations — plastic bags and, just as bad, legitimately recyclable material placed inside a plastic bag, which renders the recyclables inside as garbage. Waste Management’s Dawn McCormick says plants must be shut down three and four times a day to allow workers to descend into them to cut out plastic bags.
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