Robin Merrill is the type of person who chases a napkin caught in the wind. If she finds a plastic water bottle, she’ll lug it around in her purse or car until she spots a recycling bin. At her condo, where she lives with her husband and two sons, she led the charge to start the building’s recycling program more than a decade ago, and remains draconian in keeping her cardboard, plastic and cans separate from the trash. For a time, she even collected plastic spoons from sticky-fingered European tourists who strolled past her art gallery from a nearby ice cream shop and made sure they wound up in the proper bin.
For Robin, recycling isn’t just an ethical or moral issue—it’s a spiritual one. It’s the cornerstone of her relationship with the earth, a recurring motif in her work as an artist and gallerist in Fort Lauderdale. “I’m tired of being the shrill voice or the loud mom but this is deeply personal to me,” Merrill says. “It’s completely selfish to throw something away that shouldn’t be.”
For the most part, it’s hard to rile people up about garbage. It smells. It’s easy to pretend no one saw you free-throw your soup can into the trash, or wing it when you question if a plastic shopping bag can be recycled (it can’t!). And yet every day it seems that Mount Trashmore looms higher and higher over the Turnpike and the prospect of meeting the state’s goal of a 75 percent recycling rate by 2020 becomes more and more unlikely—especially now that reports from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection reveal that Broward’s recycling rate has taken a nosedive: plummeting from its high of 60 percent in 2012 to 48 percent in 2016, the lowest recorded number in almost a decade and 24 percent lower than the 72 percent rate in Palm Beach County (the numbers for 2017 aren’t out yet).
Why is Broward so bad at recycling? It’s a tangle of bureaucratic and economic issues: dips in the market’s demand for recyclables, a shuttered waste-to-energy plant in Pompano, a disbanded regional recycling board five years ago, a confusing tangle of public utility and private enterprise and a lack of accountability and oversight over the county’s municipalities. Unfortunately, that means that when someone like Robin Merrill tosses a glass bottle in the blue recycling bin, it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly it’ll end up: a local sorting facility, an out-of-state processing center, or perhaps even in a landfill. “It’s demoralizing to even think that the little we’re already recycling isn’t actually being recycled,” Merrill says. “We’re losing what little we even had.”
After months of research, this month the county and local municipalities plan to release a major report on the state of recycling in Broward. The report, compiled by consulting firm Arcadis, will focus on how the county can collectively reach the state’s 75 percent recycling goal by 2020. Leaders are hopeful it will usher with it a new era of sustainability in Broward.
“We can’t wait any longer to figure this out,” Broward County Mayor Beam Furr says. “What are we going to do when the Monarch Hill Landfill [Mount Trashmore] reaches its life span? Where will everything go then?”
If you ask the director of Public Works for Broward County, a deeply patient man named Thomas Hutka, the only way to understand the reasons recycling rates plumeted is to start from the beginning. Or at least all the way back to 1986, when Ronald Reagan was president and a quasi-independent government agency was formed in Broward to tackle recycling, uniting unincorporated parts of the county and local municipalities. The Resource Recovery Board (RRB) oversaw contracts with private companies that routed recyclables to sorting and processing facilities and, depending on your address, shuttled the trash put in garbage bins to one of two waste-to-energy plants—one in the north and one in the south—that incinerated the waste and created power. It’s not recycling, but since it generates energy and keeps waste out of landfills, the state credits the percentage of waste that is incinerated towards the county’s total recycling goal, which was added to the annual FDEP reports in 2012.
Recycling rates steadily hovered around 25 percent in the early aughts. In 2008, the RRB switched from the system where households put paper and cardboard in one bin and glass and plastic in another to a process called single-stream recycling, in which all recyclables mingle together in one 90-gallon blue bin. The logic was that by making recycling easier, more people would. Indeed, the rates began to climb slowly. With the added waste-to-energy credits, by 2012, the county celebrated its highest mark yet: Sixty percent of all solid waste was recycled.
But things soon flipped. In 2013, Waste Management closed one of its recycling centers in southwest Broward. That July, the RRB, the group responsible for overseeing most recycling in the county, disbanded after its 27-year contract ended. The municipalities that once comprised the RRB had to now secure their own systems of recycling (typically now to a facility, where a company takes possession of it and it is then either shipped, sorted, processed and recycled).
The county mostly had contracts with Waste Management, but now another waste disposal company called Sun Bergeron, run by Broward businessman Ron Bergeron, created competition. Rather than send trash to the waste-to-energy plants owned by Wheelabrator to the south and Waste Management to the north, Sun Bergeron mostly shuttled its solid waste to landfills including some in the middle of the state, which drastically reduced the waste-to-energy credits Broward had previously received. Less tonnage was being incinerated. Waste Management shuttered its waste-to-energy plant in Pompano in 2015.
“It’s now a patchwork quilt with a lot of different players,” Thomas Hutka says. “Some cities have contracts with Waste Management, others with Sun Bergeron, others kept the contracts secured by the county … But less waste is going to the incinerators than it used to.”
Basically, without the RRB’s oversight, a local municipality like the City of Fort Lauderdale remains responsible for organizing curbside garbage and recycle pickup. Except now it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint where that neighborhood garbage truck goes to dump its contents across 31 autonomous municipalities. Even if every single truck took its contents to the remaining waste-to-energy plant in south Broward, that plant’s capacity still couldn’t withstand it. There have even been talks about shuttling the waste further north to Palm Beach County and its new state-of-the-art waste-to-energy plant.
“When they dismantled the waste-to-energy center in the north, it was a disaster for the county,” Mayor Furr says. “As Palm Beach County’s building a new $600-million waste-to-energy plant in 2016, we’re dismantling ours, and that’s when our rates really started going down.”
In 2014, Broward recycling had dropped to 55 percent and by 2016, it was listed at 48 percent. As Palm Beach County comes close to reaching the 75 percent state recycling goal and Broward’s current downward trend continues, the county finds itself below the 50 percent mark for the first time since 2011, reversing years of hard work by residents and local leaders.
“Isn’t somebody buying this?”
Every day, Zoe Love pops open beer bottles for patrons and unwraps bike parts at Two&, the bike shop and bar that she owns with her husband, Elmo, on Las Olas. The de-facto headquarters of the Fort Lauderdale bike scene is stocked with plenty of bike racks, and patrons often ditch the gas guzzlers and just pedal over. Though Zoe needs their truck to run errands, Elmo commutes to the shop every day on his bike and the bus. And at home, Zoe and Elmo separate their recyclables from their garbage. But they surprisingly don’t do that at their shop, and for the last four years it has pained the Loves to throw the glass beer bottles and cardboard packaging in the trash heap.
Zoe says it wouldn’t be hard to add an extra bin behind the bar for recyclables. And it’s not that the Loves don’t want to recycle. But as small business owners, they just can’t afford it. Zoe has tried to request recycling services from Waste Management but says the price is astronomical. With fuel and taxes included, the bill would come close to $200 a month – and likely more if, for example, Waste Management ever had to make a return trip because the alley behind the bar was blocked, as frequently happens. Tacked on to their current $200 waste disposal bill, the Loves couldn’t budget the extra recycling expense.
“At the house we recycle and it’s so strange that we don’t do that here,” Zoe says. “It’s hard enough with rising rents to keep going and signing up to double our waste pickup bill isn’t an option… maybe if we were a bigger business.”
Each municipality has its own recycling ordinances, which generally mandate that all commercial and multifamily residences recycle. But it’s up to the local municipalities to enforce them. That can be hard to gauge from one municipality to the next. Even if cities were draconian in enforcing the recycling mandates, it’s unclear how small businesses like Two& could afford the added costs.
“You would just assume recycling would be free like it is at the house,” Zoe Love says. “To be honest, I find [the steep recycling pick-up price] a little weird because isn’t someone buying this?”
Indeed, the concept of recycling relies on companies and entire countries buying our scrap paper, glass, plastic and other recyclables after they’ve been picked up, sorted and processed, and then using them in new products, which they sell for profit. But the market swings wide and very drastically, making something like recycled paper go from being a prized commodity to suddenly costing less than the fuel waste-disposal companies spend to truck it to their facilities.
China threw a wrench in the world’s recycling gears when it announced that as of January 1, 2018, it would no longer buy recycled plastic from other countries. Since China imports 51 percent of the world’s scrap plastic, recycled plastic is reportedly piling up in recycling centers across the country and world. Now some lower-grade plastic isn’t being accepted at all, or worse, winds up in incinerators or the landfill.
The pinch is being felt close to home, says Sylvia Glazer, director of Hollywood’s Public Works Department. “The export recycling market has slowed substantially now that China has virtually closed off many of its previously vibrant markets…The depression of commodities prices is negatively impacting the recycling industry’s profitability and growth.”
If plastic’s recycling problems are global, Broward’s problems with glass recycling have a decidedly local origin. Glass comprises 15 to 20 percent of all recyclables in Broward. It’s currently accepted in Broward’s blue bins. Thomas Hutka from Public Works admits that with the current market, glass “is not favorable for reuse” for fiberglass and bottles. Instead, it can be used at landfills and other solid waste facilities for landfill cover and road base material, which is considered an acceptable recycling use. But Mayor Beam Furr is concerned that glass recycling isn’t as efficient as it could be “because we don’t have the [upgraded] machinery to do it.”
When something winds up in a bin that can’t be recycled (a garden hose) or a recyclable item is too contaminated to process (glass shards), it then winds up going to the waste-to-energy plant or the landfill. But with dozens of competing contracts among local municipalities, the recycling landscape can look very different from one neighborhood to the next.
“If the private industry can’t recycle these items, then the government has to provide these services,” Furr says. “With glass, we can use it as a road aggregate; with plastic, we can use it when we manufacture playgrounds.”
Several years ago, the county tried a pilot program that pulverized recycled glass until it was whittled down to little grains of sand that could be used in beach nourishment and restoration. Furr went to Hollywood Beach, where the trial took place. He took off his shoes and walked barefoot on little grains of glass. “I couldn’t tell the difference,” he says. “I saw the potential for this firsthand.”
Though county commissioners then voted against the $1.5 million needed to further the project, Furr is optimistic as he waits for the recycling report to come out this month that county leaders are now ready to look at different solutions.
Welcome to Fort Litterdale
It was hard to miss the county’s election on March 13. For months, advertisements and social media echoed campaign slogans and promises. Laminated signs for city commission or mayoral candidates were posted on lawns, chainlink fences and street corners, their brightly colored names and smiling faces deliberately positioned to remain in your periphery until Election Day.
But what happened to all the laminated signs and posters after the polls closed? What happened on March 14? It was a question Robin Merrill found herself asking after volunteering at a polling place and being handed a stack of confiscated election signs. She didn’t want to risk them ending up in a dumpster, but when she realized laminated paper cannot be recycled, she found herself in a bind.
So, she got crafty. She drove around gathering as many election signs as she could and built a fort. Using tent poles as a makeshift skeleton, Merrill taped more than 200 laminated posters together: Dean Trantalis, Ben Sorensen, Marie Huntley, winners and losers alike. The work debuted at a FAT Village warehouse during a recent art walk. Rising 10 feet high, it didn’t look like it could withstand hurricane-force winds, but it was indeed a fort. Scores of art aficionados tilted their heads and stepped inside asking if this was a political statement. Merrill kicked her feet up in her reclining chair and relished her art, which she titled “Fort Litterdale.”
“I used the signs like building blocks to create a fort, just like I did as a child,” Merrill says. “Besides, there’s no current ‘fort’ in Fort Lauderdale. This is the only fort in Fort Lauderdale and it’s made of litter.”
Around the country, other cities have found creative solutions for trash – and not in an art installation way. San Francisco and Los Angeles have some of the highest recycling rates in the country: 80 and 76.4 percent respectively. Both have banned plastic bags, and San Francisco fines residences, businesses and events if recyclables are placed in the trash. Closer to home, Palm Beach County currently separates recyclables into two bins, which the county’s solid waste spokesman, Willie Puz, says keeps their recyclables cleaner, lowers their rate of contamination and allows them to sell their scraps faster than single-stream. “Communities that use single stream sell their commodities but at a very low rate,” Puz says.
In Broward, Hollywood implemented a recycling incentive program in 2010. Every time a resident rolls their blue recycling bin curbside they earn points, which they cash in for discounts to local businesses that can add up to as much as $25 a month and $300 a year. Between 6,000 and 15,000 residents have participated in the program so far. But Sylvia Glazer reports that the program costs Hollywood $133,000 a year, and that the city “is currently evaluating its pros and cons to determine if any changes need to occur.”
In the meantime, recycling in Broward hangs in the balance – particularly this month, as the Arcadis report is scheduled to be released. In addition to looking at how Broward can meet the 75 percent goal by 2020, the report will also address how contracts between municipalities can work in sync and whether opening another county-run waste-to-energy plant is feasible. That might mean using plastic to build local playgrounds, to use glass as an aggregate in roadway construction, or of course turning the glass back to sand. “The study will help us try to figure out how to close the loop,” Furr says. “If China’s not buying as much of our goods, we need to move those resources ourselves, locally.”
Despite watching the rates plummet over the past few years, the mayor is optimistic. He admits that recycling is not where it needs to be in Broward. But he’s stepped barefoot on sand made from recycled glass. Solutions are known; what remains unknown is whether Broward will implement them.