The Reuters recycling center on the western outskirts of Pembroke Pines is where discarded cardboard, glass, aluminum, plastic and other recyclables from Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and parts of Collier County go to be reincarnated. Owned by Waste Management, the largest residential recycler on the continent, the facility is the largest recycling center in the southeastern United States, capable of processing 50 tons of recyclables an hour.
On any given day, 400 to 600 trucks dump tons into the gushing stream of high-powered magnets, optical sorting machines, whirring metal sifters and human labor, all working together to bring new life to the items no longer needed, everything from empty milk jugs and used yogurt containers to opened cardboard boxes and chugged soda cans. The goal is to save these materials from spending eternity — or however many years until they biodegrade — at a landfill like Monarch Hill in Pompano Beach, which is more than 20 stories high, nicknamed “Mount Trashmore” and can smell so bad at times that it has its own “Odor Reporting Line.”
Putting what can be recycled in one color-coded bin and what can’t in another seems simple enough, but nevertheless there’s a rising mountain of unrecyclable garbage at the recycling plant. It’s comprised of every kind of trash you can imagine, from air conditioning filters to license plates, shoes, pillows and Croc slippers. There are wall clocks, garden hoses, window curtains and more. Armed with a neon vest, protective eyewear and scrunched nostrils, operation supervisor Carmelo Andino approached the stinky heap on a recent weekday morning and pulled out a gray 11-inch laptop.
“You got to understand the level of craziness and contamination going on. This is the worst of the worst,” Andino said, shaking his head disapprovingly. “Anytime you see flies, that means there’s a dead animal or food.”
South Florida is very, very bad at recycling. Waste Management estimates that roughly a third of what residents put into their blue bins for curbside pick-up cannot be recycled and is considered “contamination.” To put that into perspective, the national recycling contamination average hovers at 20 percent. According to the Miami Herald, a recycling audit for Miami-Dade County estimated the recycling contamination rate to be as high as 49 percent — a figure so astronomical that Kessler Consulting Inc. (KCI) recommended the county conduct a new analysis since “only in rare instances has KCI noted this scale of contamination.”
Recycling is an ethical way to mitigate mankind’s continued plundering of the planet. It saves natural resources, energy and water, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. On a household-by-household basis, it’s easy to “wishcycle” and cross your fingers for a recycling miracle when you put a plastic grocery bag or styrofoam egg carton in the blue bin. While that seems innocuous enough, the problem is that this level of contamination is happening on a massive scale, and in Broward alone, at more than a quarter million tons a year.
“Unfortunately the truth is about 20 percent of people don’t care and don’t value recycling and really just use their recycling containers as an extra garbage can,” says Dawn McCormick, Waste Management’s communications and government affairs director. “That’s unfortunate because it really drives up the cost of recycling and the bad material ruins the good material.”
But residents aren’t the only ones to blame. In 2008, the Florida Legislature set an ambitious goal for each of its 67 counties to recycle 75 percent of all solid waste. By 2012, Broward County was on track to meet the state’s goal and boasted a 60 percent recycling rate. But since 2013, the county’s rate has taken a drastic nose dive: With renewable energy credits taken into account, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) listed Broward’s recycling rate at 42 percent in 2020. In reality, only 30 percent of all Broward’s solid waste was recycled in the traditional sense of, say, a used water bottle being processed and sold to a company to become another water bottle — and that’s not even accounting for the estimated 30 percent of contamination. The true percentage of how much solid waste is actually being recycled in Broward County could be as low as 21 percent.
“It’s important to understand that that [FDEP recycling] number supposes that everything that comes in here gets recycled,” McCormick says. “They [counties] don’t say on the back end of that 1,000 tons they sent to be recycled how many hundreds of tons of that was truly garbage and had to go back out for disposal.”
The recycling problem in Broward is a Spiderman meme of pointed fingers: lack of outreach geared to educate residents about how and what to recycle, outdated recycling facilities, a shuttered waste-to-energy plant that once gave the county credit for creating renewable energy by incinerating its trash and keeping it out of landfills, the chaos of the recyclables market after China stopped accepting the bulk of the world’s plastics, the lack of a comprehensive long-term plan across all 31 municipalities in the county and simply, the roughly $1.3 billion bill to fund the facilities needed to get the county to start recycling at the rate of other metropolitan areas.
“The recycling rate probably won’t start going up until we can implement an educational campaign that educates the general public on why they should recycle and what’s in it for them,” says Broward County Commissioner Beam Furr. “When will we get up to 75 percent? I wouldn’t expect that until we have a fully implemented comprehensive solid waste system.”
From Organization to Chaos
Broward’s modern recycling woes date back nearly 40 years to 1986, when a quasi-independent government agency called the Resource Recovery Board (RRB) was formed to tackle recycling across the county. It united local municipalities and unincorporated parts of the county with the goal of overseeing every solid waste contract it held with private companies, including Waste Management for recycling and Wheelabrator for incinerating its garbage for renewable energy credits that counted towards the county’s recycling goal because it kept waste out of teetering-at-capacity landfills.
In the early aughts, recycling rates hovered around 25 percent in Broward. There was a marked increase in residents’ participation in the recycling program when in 2008 it switched from a dual-stream system (when paper and cardboard were separated from glass and plastic in two bins) to a single-stream system, where all recyclables are discarded together in 90-gallon blue bins. With more residents recycling and the added waste-to-energy credits, Broward recycled 60 percent of its solid waste, according to the FDEP reports.
But things quickly changed when the RRB disbanded in 2013 after its 27-year contract ended. Now each municipality was responsible for securing contracts for waste disposal and recycling pick-up. Some municipalities stayed with Waste Management, but others went with another waste disposal company, Sun Bergeron, run by Broward businessman Ron Bergeron. Rather than send trash to one of two waste-to-energy plants in the county, Sun Bergeron mostly shuttled garbage to landfills in the middle of the state, which drastically cut the number of renewable energy credits that were being counted towards Broward’s recycling goal. With less tonnage being incinerated, Waste Management shuttered its waste-to-energy plant in Pompano in 2015. Now only one waste-to-energy plant is in operation.
“At the time, WM was very vocal about not wanting to see the RRB go away. We supported the RRB,” McCormick says. “When you break up a countywide system, it’s very hard to put it back together.”
The recycling rate dropped five percentage points countywide to 55 percent the following year, and then another seven percentage points by 2016. By 2021, only five counties had met the state’s 75 percent recycling goal. Not only was Broward not one of them, but the recycling rate across the county had plummeted officially to 42 percent. The real number, county leaders estimate, is about 30 percent.
Decisions made far from Florida have also had an impact. Recycling had often cost less than the amount the recycled material sold for, which meant that not only did recycling not cost municipalities money, it actually provided a small revenue stream. But after China announced it would stop buying recycled plastic from other countries in 2018, the planet’s recycling market was thrown into chaos. Recycling facilities like Waste Management have had to update how they process costs depending on how much they are able to sell their finished recycled bales for.
Municipalities were shocked when they had to foot a recycling bill that was much higher than the cost of just dumping it in a landfill. But, McCormick says, there are 150 full-time commodity salespeople working at Waste Management to find the best price per bale of recycled material. E-commerce has driven up demand for cardboard, and there’s a big demand for aluminum from soda and beer companies as most aluminum that is recycled winds up back on shelves within 60 days. Today, all of the plastic recycled in Florida by Waste Management stays inside the United States.
“Since China closed their doors, there’s been tremendous investment in the United States to take recycled material and utilize it,” McCormick says. “At times, recycling might be a net positive revenue stream but at other times there might be a cost.”
But if you ask Broward County Commissioner Beam Furr, recycling is the ethical thing to do regardless of how much it might now cost. At home, he composts to limit how much material he chucks into his green recycling bin that might one day end up in a landfill.
“Now more than ever we have to recycle to preserve the capacities of our landfills and also limit methane emissions,” Furr says. “We don’t have to be making a profit from recycling, but realize that we’re providing a service. If we’re just breaking even on glass recycling or plastics recycling, that’s fine because it’s the right thing to do.”
Blue Bins vs. Rising Seas
It’s hard to get residents to care about their waste. It smells, and the sooner it’s out of one’s olfactory range, the better. It can be hard to comprehend how the content of an individual’s blue recycling bin fits into the larger, chaotic puzzle of the county’s long-term sustainability and solid waste plan. But according to Broward’s chief resilience officer, Jennifer Jurado, it matters greatly and is a crucial and underestimated resource for mitigating sea level rise and keeping South Florida afloat in the decades to come.
“We need to be very, very conscious about every aspect of our energy use and emissions production, and waste management is an important part of that which we don’t pay attention to but that footprint is still there,” Jurado says. “Many would argue that two feet of sea level rise is really the threshold of what we feel we can possibly manage [in Broward] and we’re recognizing that one foot is going to be occurring well within the lifetimes of people who are still middle-aged — that’s an additional foot on top of what’s already happened.”
It costs roughly $42 a ton to dispose of waste in a landfill, Furr estimates, and as much as $100 a ton to recycle it. Though it might be cheaper to truck recyclables to a landfill versus paying to have them sorted and processed to be reused, all that’s doing is kicking the aluminum can further down the road when it really should be tossed in the recycling bin — and not releasing methane, a greenhouse gas even more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to warming the planet, into the atmosphere at a landfill. The Monarch Hill landfill, which is owned by Waste Management, can only keep accepting trash for another eight or nine years. Some trash gets trucked north to landfills in Arcadia and St. Cloud, but both have informed Broward they don’t want to receive as much of its waste in the future. Beyond that, it’s unclear where South Florida will truck its waste.
“It’s cheap on the front end and deadly on the back end. No one is taking into consideration the long-term costs,” Furr says. “For the first time, you’re starting to see that climate change and landfills can’t be looked at in a silo and rather how they affect each other.”
A 165-page, county-funded study from consulting firm Arcadis that was released in 2018 offered three scenarios that would help Broward attain a 65 percent recycling rate by 2020 and 75 percent by 2025. The most promising scenario called for mixed waste to be processed at a new facility while wet organic waste would be processed at another new facility and the residuals would be combusted at a waste-to-energy plant for renewable recycling credit points. The study also called for a new waste-to-energy facility, an additional trash transfer station, a yard trash facility and another new recycling facility.
“I knew we would need a lot of different facilities to get to that 75 percent recycling rate,” Furr says of the Arcadis report. “I didn’t know how many (facilities) we would need nor did I know how (the goals) might be addressed through composting and things like that.”
But 2020 came and went, and not only did Broward not meet the state’s 75 percent recycling goal, it also didn’t reach Arcadis’ 65 percent goal. By 2021, Palm Beach, Collier, Lee, Charlotte and Sumner counties were all hitting 75 percent. For Broward, stuck at around 30 percent, 75 looks a long way away.
“Because it’s so expensive, you really need everybody [all the municipalities] on board. This is a big lift and big lifts only happen when everyone is helping to shoulder the costs and the effort,” says Furr, acknowledging that the various facilities are estimated to cost $1.3 billion. “One city can’t do it. It’s beyond their capacity.”
In October 2019, the Broward League of Cities, a non-partisan organization dedicated to resolving issues facing the county’s 31 municipalities, began meeting to address the recommendations made by the Arcadis report. One of the recommendations was to create a collaborative governance structure with an independent special district, not unlike the RRB created in 1986 except it’d have taxing authority similar to the Palm Beach County Solid Waste Authority.
By January 2020, representatives from all 31 municipalities (with the exception of Lazy Lake, the county’s tiniest municipality that’s really just several streets surrounded by Wilton Manors) met to start bringing these scenarios to life. The nine delegates called themselves the Solid Waste Working Group and are collaborating to create a regional master plan for comprehensive solid waste disposal across the county for the next 40 years and beyond.
“It’s taking a while because the Solid Waste Working Group has had to bring the long-term costs into consideration, but it’s getting there,” says Furr, who is the group’s vice chair. “You’re starting to see cities raise their awareness levels.”
At the center of the plans is the fate of Alpha 250, 47 acres of undeveloped land in Pompano that is presently owned by the county after the RRB disbanded in 2013. A settlement determined that the county must sell the site and that the estimated $7 million proceeds be divided among the 18 municipalities that had once participated in the RRB. However, the Arcadis study recommended that the land not be sold and that one day it could house one or more of the proposed facilities the county will need to meet the 75 percent goal.
Since March 2021, the Solid Waste Working Group has met multiple times every month. So far, they’ve commissioned waste generation and waste composition studies, which are ongoing. But at the meeting on October 26, 2022, the group determined it was ready to hire a consultant to prepare a countywide master plan that would “create a regional solid waste and recycling system that is environmentally sustainable, transparent, innovative, and economically efficient in its approach to disposal, reduction, reuse, and recycling of the waste generated across Broward County.”
At the Broward County Commission meeting on December 13, 2022, Furr presented the plans while around the same time, other delegates presented to their respective municipalities. Once the consultant is hired, the regional master plan could be made within a year, and once it’s accepted by the delegates, the county could get to work on the logistics of updating facilities and building new ones.
One of the recommendations is already being put in place after Waste Management announced plans to build a $75 million state-of-the-art 127,000-square-foot recycling facility on a 12-acre parcel of land next door to the Reuters recycling facility in Pembroke Pines. The new facility will increase Waste Management’s overall recycling capacity in South Florida by expanding what it can recycle through artificial intelligence and other technological advancements to produce a cleaner bale of recyclables that can sell at a higher price.
“Recycling is on the rebound or else you wouldn’t see Waste Management doing that,” Furr says. “This is a giant gamble for Waste Management, but they usually win their gambles.”
As the bureaucratic wheels start to turn, albeit slowly, Furr remains most excited about residents’ solutions for closing the loop and creating a more circular economy. At a recent “Resilience Pitch Night” at Nova Southeastern University’s Broward Center of Innovation, startup founders showcased their solutions for climate technology, resiliency and water management. There was one company that was creating durable seawalls from recycled plastic. Another sought to speed up the typical composting process. The winner that night was Lean Orb, a company founded by South Florida native Anastasia Mikhalochkina that provides local businesses with compostable food packaging to keep single-use plastics out of landfills.
“I’d love Broward to become a place where we can invite and entice the innovators and entrepreneurs to come up with some good solutions,” Furr says. “I would love to see us become the Silicon Valley of resilience.”