In South Florida, more and more recycling is landfill bound
Cities rethink recycling as global demand for used materials plummets
BROWARD COUNTY, Fla. – It's a weekly ritual in cities across South Florida: Trash is taken to the curb, household garbage in one bin and recycling in another. But much of what we believe is recycled at a west Broward County facility actually winds up in a landfill.
It's a crisis that's been brewing for years caused both by poor recycling habits and global economics.
"We have had this mentality for years. We've been told it's good to recycle, but now we're being told it's not economically feasible and would be cheaper to just throw it in the landfill," said Todd Drusky, a Deerfield Beach city commissioner.
The city of Deerfield Beach even temporarily stopped curbside recycling because the cost of processing has more than doubled.
"It's actually more expensive to recycle than to dispose," said Richard Salamon, city manager for Sunrise.
That's in part because China, previously a major importer of recycled goods, no longer wants our trash.
"We've identified other markets -- Latin America, southeast Asia, India -- but they're taking much less of that material so we have an oversupply on the global market," said Dawn McCormick, with Waste Management.
The problem is compounded by what's winding up in recycle bins. Twenty-five percent of the material doesn't belong there and contaminates the entire load.
"The worst is plastic bags, cords, clothing, even Christmas lights this time of year," McCormick said.
Recycling "right" means making sure everything that goes in there is clean and dry -- no soda left in the can, no water or food stains on paper and cardboard.
Many are surprised to learn that although we're told to recycle glass, it winds up in the landfill because there's no local market for it.
Broken glass can even contaminate a load of recycling.
"I really think everyone has to come together and rethink this whole process," said Amir Abtahi, a professor at Florida Atlantic University’s College of Engineering.
That's exactly what Salamon is trying to do as chairman of the solid waste working group.
"The big problem we have right now is we don't own our own facilities. We're contracting with the private sector for everything. We're at their mercy," Salamon said.
When the cost of recycling more than doubled, Sunrise took a different route.
"Instead of landfilling we take it to an incinerator. They burn the garbage and it generates electricity," Salamon said.
While turning waste to energy is a form of recycling, one incinerator can't handle all of the region’s trash, and the space to dump it is dwindling.
"Until people see that these landfills cannot continue to expand and go higher, we may not take the problem seriously," Abtahi said.
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