Here's a new motto for your recycling: "When in doubt, throw it out."
Meaning don't put it in the recycling bin.
That's the message from Dawn McCormick, spokeswoman for Waste Management's massive Reuter Recycling Center in far western Broward, which handles all of Miami-Dade County's recycling and two-thirds of Broward's.
Behind this simple message is a complicated tale, involving big bad China, worthless glass, suspicions of Vietnam landfills and a call for rebellion by the mayors of Sunrise and Weston.
People are often well intentioned, says McCormick. They feel they're doing the right thing by throwing it in the recycling bin even if they're not sure -- hey, if there's a chance it can be recycled, that's helping the environment, right?
McCormick calls this "wish recycling" -- an expensive desire.
Bad stuff contaminates the good stuff, and if the contamination level gets too high, it becomes quite costly to throw out the dirty while keeping the clean.
|recycling at Reuter center in West Broward|
What's more, even a permissible recyclable like glass has become highly problematic. Still, most governments think their residents would rebel if they were told to stop putting their wine bottles in the recycling bin. "People feel like it's the right thing to do," says McCormick.
More on that in a moment. More also about the loud complaints in Broward County that Waste Management has achieved a stranglehold on the market and has almost doubled its fees -- a move that's caused one city to stop recycling.
But first let's step back first to examine the underlying problem -- one that has sent the recycling market into a calamitous tailspin.
China used to be the major customer of the world's recycling -- 50 percent of the global market.
Huge cargo ships came to the United States loaded with Chinese-made TVs and such, and returned to China stuffed with loads of cardboard and plastic -- transportation for recycling virtually free, since the ships had to go back in any case.
Then China decided it had enough of being the world's junkyard. First, it insisted on uncontaminated recycling -- up to 99 percent pure. That's a huge hurdle for America, where as much as 25 to 35 percent of recycling is contaminated with food remnants or plastic shopping bags. When recycling comes in with that much contamination, it increases the costs that governments ultimately have to pay.
Now, China has essentially stopped accepting anything. This presents "real challenges" in marketing the tons of South Florida recycling, says McCormick.
A shining example was revealed on 60 Minutes last Sunday (Dec. 23) in a segment on plastic clogging our oceans. Reporter Lesley Stahl stated some West Coast recycling locations have had to dump plastic into landfills because they couldn't get rid of the stuff.
One recycling pro told 60 Minutes that the new destination for plastic is Southeast Asia countries, like Vietnam, but no one knew whether those countries are just getting paid by American companies to take the plastic and then dumping it into landfills.
McCormick thinks that may be too negative an assessment. It could be Vietnam was getting too much plastic too quickly and had to bury some of it, but in the main the countries are sincerely trying to recycle it.
"Waste Management in most cases has been able to find new markets" for plastic, says McCormick -- Southeast Asia, Latin America and India.
But this has meant "dramatic decreases" in payments for recyclables.
Before the China problem, the basic American recycling model has been this. The recycling company picks up the stuff and sells it. It deducts the costs of processing -- say, $50 a ton -- and then splits the profits with the local government that provided the material.
|Reuter center near US 27 -- all recycling goes onto a single belt and then is separated by machine|
At one point, McCormick says, recycling was bringing in $120 to $150 a ton, meaning governments and Waste Management were sharing hefty sums of up to $100 a ton. Now, the extra amounts to maybe $20 a ton, "and some cities are having to pay for recycling," she says.
Recycled aluminum is "extremely valuable," says McCormick. It reduces the need for mining and refining -- a "huge upside" environmentally and the pay is "very high."
Cardboard is also good. Mixed papers and plastic depend on the lack of contamination and finding an outlet.
Then there's glass.
Take another step back: In 2010, the state came up with a goal of recycling 75 percent of waste by 2010 -- measured by weight. The goal was "aspirational," says McCormick, "meaning no penalties."
In 2017, the state recycled 51 percent of waste if you include waste-to-energy, or 42 percent if you count only new product.
Still, it was a noble goal, to reduce landfills and promote re-use.
Glass: "An environmental burden"
One problem is that aluminum doesn't weight much, so it doesn't go far toward meeting the 75 percent goal. Glass, however, weighs a lot.
The problem: There's no real market for it in South Florida.
In other areas of the country, where plants are manufacturing glass bottles, there's need for recycled glass. Not here.
Waste Management has to pay a company in Sarasota, Strategic Materials, to take the glass off its hands. "They use it for sand-blasting and some other uses," says McCormick.
The problem is that it takes a lot of trucks, burning fossil fuels, to haul the material across Florida, meaning recycling glass is "more of an environmental burden" than a benefit.
Waste Management no longer recycles glass from its commercial customers, and "some counties are asking, is it the right thing to do to take it out of the programs," McCormick says.
Now, we're getting down to a crucial point. Recycling glass can "environmentally be the right thing to do," says McCormick, by keeping it out of landfills. "But is it cost-effective? No."
McCormick says that the diminishing economics of recycling has caused it to raise its processing rates in Broward -- from about $51 a ton to about $96 a ton.
This has sent up howls. Florida Bulldog and some politicians have shouted that Waste Management bought up the competition in Broward and is now able to charge monopoly prices.
In May Weston Mayor Daniel Stermer and Sunrise Mayor Mike Ryan wrote a letter to the Sun Sentinel decrying the present situation:
"Municipalities in Broward County are facing a crisis that will increase costs, potentially divert recyclable materials to landfills ... and depress recycling outcomes for decades to come. ...
|Weston Mayor Daniel Stermer|
"Because municipalities lack local government control of solid waste infrastructure and we have been unable to utilize collective buying power to secure strategic, long-term contracts with the private sector to supplement our regional system, we are subject to volatility. Now, the slow burning worldwide crisis has erupted."
The mayors acknowledged the same issues McCormick addresses: "In recent years, the national and international markets for processing certain recyclable commodities have collapsed. ... Potential supply is far in excess of demand.
"Contamination included in single-stream recycling has increased processing costs, reduced the quality of recyclable commodities, rendered otherwise recyclable materials unusable and, resulted in diversion back into the waste stream for disposal."
|Sunrise Mayor Mike Ryan|
The mayors advocated searching for a way that could "reduce our exposure to consolidated for-profit business models that jeopardize competition."
Last summer, rather than meet the huge bump in processing charges, the city of Sunrise began to send all its materials to a waste-to-energy incineration plant.
Enough of this political mess. Let's get back to our original point, the one that Waste Management and the mayors agree on: Contamination of recycling materials increases costs.
"Clean and dry" is what's needed, says McCormick. She warns against throwing plastic toys and coat hangers into the recycling bin. Material put into plastic garbage bags and left curbside is assumed to be garbage and is thrown out.
"Keep it simple: "Cans, cardboard, papers, bottles and jugs," she says.
In the 60 Minutes program, the final advice on plastic came down to this: Since recycling has become so problematic, it's best to keep your use as low as possible.