Recycling’s problem

By: - August 27, 2019 7:00 am

Recycling bin at the Capitol. Mitch Perry photo

Ten years ago, the state set a goal of recycling 75 percent of Florida’s trash by 2020.

Now that the deadline is nearly here, it’s clear that the majority of Florida counties are unlikely to meet it.

The reasons for failure transcend any factors particular to the Sunshine State, or anywhere else in America.

It’s a complex mess tied up in international markets, citizen confusion, money, and modern materials.

A huge looming factor: China quit buying recyclable material from the U.S. in January 2018, saying the American waste stream is too contaminated by non-recyclable materials.

China had been warning the U.S. for over a decade that there was too much garbage mixed in with what was supposed to be recyclable material, says Mitch Hedlund, the founder and executive director of Recycle Across America.

“They said every time we bring it to China and unveil it, we find out it’s filled with dirty diapers and hypodermic needles and half-eaten hot dogs and all sorts of things that don’t belong in there,” she says. “So it’s a big deal that China did what they did, but they did it because our recycling has been so filled with garbage.”

China’s decision has made it more expensive for local governments to recycle waste, compelling some of them to forgo recycling altogether.

Local governments face higher bills

City commissioners in the central Florida town of Deltona voted in January to suspend the city’s residential curbside program.

“We have a task force looking into options, but as of now, we are still suspended on the recycling,” Deltona Mayor Heidi Herzberg told the Phoenix last week.

Santa Rosa County in the Panhandle suspended its recycling program with Emerald Coast Utilities in April with five months to go on its contract. Santa Rosa officials and the utility company have subsequently renegotiated a new pact and it goes before the utility’s board next month. Emerald Coast Utilities spokeswoman Nathalie Bowers says there were several factors at play, starting with the county’s high contamination rate of 30 to 38 percent.

“It just didn’t make sense for us to continue,” she said. “We just have to make sure we keep our recyclable facilities viable and not have our own citizens subsidizing other communities,” Bowers said, referring to the fact that the company has contracts with 13 other local governments.

Last year in South Florida, the Broward County cities of Sunrise and Deerfield Beach opted not to renew contracts after Waste Management hiked the pickup charge to $96 a ton, a prodigious increase from the previous $51.15 per ton.

After a public outcry, Deerfield Beach resumed the program months later, but the city of Sunrise has opted to forgo recycling altogether, instead choosing to send its recyclables (and trash) to burn in a waste-to-energy plant.

The problem is that “there’s simply an oversupply of recycling material on the global market looking for a home,” says Dawn McCormack, a spokesperson for Waste Management, America’s largest trash hauler and landfill operator.

The repercussions of China’s “National Sword” policy banning imported plastic have been “massive,” says Recycle Across America’s Hedlund.

What’s recyclable?

Recycling officials say only these items should be disposed in appropriate bins:

  • Metal cans
  • Plastic containers only labeled No. 1 through No. 7 on the bottom or side.
  • Glass bottles or jars.
  • Cardboard boxes – but not if they held a liquid or frozen food.
  • Paper (unless shredded or soiled).

How bad are we in placing non-recyclable items in those ubiquitous bins?

In Lee County, which sports (along with Charlotte County) the best recycling rate in the state at 77 percent, the county’s recycling contractor had to remove more than 19 million pounds of trash out of recycling carts in 2017. According to a press release, that cost Lee County taxpayers $362,871.

Currently, only Lee and Charlotte counties surpass the 75 percent aspiration recyclable goal set by the FDEP a decade ago. Close behind are Pinellas and Alachua counties at 70 percent.

Hedlund with Recycle Across America says she realized nearly a decade ago why the U.S. and the world has such a high contamination rate when it comes to recycling: a lack of standardized recycling labels. She says confusing recycling instructions on bins throughout the country has made people indifferent to properly setting aside what is recyclable and what isn’t.

Better labeling helps

Recycle Across America has distributed more than nine million standardized labels to public and private entities across the nation.

In Florida, the group worked with Bank of America to offer standardized labels to the 184 Orange County schools before the 2015-2016 school year. The results have been impressive.

“Since July 2016, Orange County Public Schools has increased recycling by over 5,000 tons,” Jennifer Fowler, director of environmental compliance at the Orange County Public Schools told “In addition, the recycling program saved the school district over $1 million in expenditures during the 2017-2018 school year alone.”

Recycle Across America has also provided standardized labels to Walt Disney World resorts in Lake Buena Vista, and to the Miami-Dade County School District (Officials there did not respond to a request for comment).

The U.S. House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee approved a funding bill in May which includes distributing standardized recycling labels developed by Recycle Across America to “ensure the long-term economic and environmental viability of local recycling programs by exercising national leadership and facilitating the harmonization of standards.”

Plastics are the real problem, environmentalists say

Meanwhile, some environmentalists say that when it comes to single-use plastic, recycling really isn’t working at all and stronger measures need to be implemented.

A 2015 report published in Science Advances found that of the approximately 6,300 million metric tons of plastic around the world, only 9 percent was recycled. Twelve percent of it was incinerated and 79 percent was dumped in landfills or scattered elsewhere.

Because nearly all of plastic is derived from fossil fuels, it’s now being viewed as a major contributor to climate change.

“Many citizens strongly support recycling, but plastics recycling is not a realistic solution to the plastic pollution crisis,” wrote  New Mexico Democratic U.S. Senator Tom Udall and California U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal in a letter to President Trump in June.

In California, lawmakers have proposed legislation to require packaging producers to make all plastic materials recyclable.

Emer Kelly, co-chair of the Tampa Bay-based Suncoast Rise Above Plastics Coalition, said that she hopes Florida legislators will adopt similar proposals.

“We hope that they will soon realize that plastic pollution is tied to climate change, and to tackle it would be to make our state more resilient and protect our booming tourist industry,” she said.

On the local level, this movement has led to plastic straws and plastic bag bans. Such efforts have been extremely limited in the Sunshine State, however.

A bill banning local governments from enacting plastic straw laws passed in the GOP-led Legislature this spring, but was later vetoed by Governor Ron DeSantis.

Referring to communities like Miami Beach, Fort Myers Beach and others that have already passed ordinances banning plastic straws, DeSantis said, “under these circumstances, the state should simply allow local communities to address this issue through the political process.”

Regulations bring legal threats

Several Florida cities had been passing ordinances banning the use of single-use plastic bags this year, but they’ve reversed themselves in the last month after receiving a stern warning from the Florida Retail Federation reminding them that it’s still against state law.

“You have 60 days to repeal this unlawful ordinance,” Retail Federation officials wrote to the town of Palm Beach last month. “If the ordinance is not repealed within the requisite period, your town will be responsible for attorney fees, costs and damages in the event the ordinance is successfully challenged in court.”

Last week, the Sarasota City Commission passed a measure to limit polystyrene (trade name: Styrofoam) within special events, sidewalk café permits and city lease agreements, as well as prohibit the distribution of single-use straws on public properties unless specifically requested by the customer.

Meanwhile, the Third District Court of Appeals ruled earlier this month against the city of Coral Gables in its bid to ban polystyrene.

The city is debating whether to appeal its case to the Florida Supreme Court.

(UPDATE: The Coral Gables city commission voted unanimously Tuesday night to appeal the case to the Florida Supreme Court).


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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has spent the past 18 years covering news and politics in the Sunshine State, most recently with He worked for five years as the political editor of Creative Loafing in Tampa, and before that he was the assistant news director at WMNF radio, where he served as creator/anchor/producer of the hour-long WMNF Evening News. A San Francisco native, Mitch began his career at KPFA Radio in Berkeley in the 1990's.