Cash for Trash

In Broward County, trash haulers and politicians care about only one kind of green

Wheelabrator Technologies, a wholly owned subsidiary of Waste Management, owns the incinerators, which the company refers to as "waste-to-energy" plants. That's because by burning waste, it heats water, creating steam, which is sent to a turbine generator, producing electricity.

The waste-to-energy description employs the same Orwellian logic as the naming of the Resource Recovery Board. While something is "recovered" in burning garbage — a bit of electricity — even more is lost. Incinerating waste means the loss of materials that might have otherwise been recycled, meaning that more resources must be used to create those goods from scratch rather than from recycled material.

Nor is it as clean as recycling. Combustion of waste creates ash that must be put in a landfill, which emits methane, a greenhouse gas. That ash also contains dioxins — chemical compounds that are difficult to contain. Once airborne, they tend to become embedded in soil, then find their way into dairy products, meat, and fish. While most do not harm humans, chronic exposure to the most toxic dioxins is associated with high rates of cancer (the ash from Broward incinerators is tested before it is buried).

In Broward, trash that can be recycled often goes up in smoke.
In Broward, trash that can be recycled often goes up in smoke.
Jeffrey Young, of Organic Recovery in Pompano.
C. Stiles
Jeffrey Young, of Organic Recovery in Pompano.

Finally, when a region spends a fortune on incinerators, it tends to use them — at the expense of recycling. In 2005, the most recent year for which data are available, the franchise cities burned 91 percent of their solid waste. Four percent was landfilled. Only 5 percent was recycled.

"This is not an ideal technology," says Linda Christopher, executive director of the California-based Grassroots Recycling Network, speaking of waste incinerators. "They lock these communities into 30-year contracts, and it precludes future recycling options that are more cost-effective and better for the environment."

Technological innovation has allowed for the recycling of more materials. Besides the paper, plastic, and glass that can be placed into bins by homeowners — materials that comprise about 40 percent of the waste stream — there are new methods for recycling construction debris and even food waste.

Historically, the way to cut down on food waste was through composting. But that's woefully inefficient and not as environmentally neutral as most think. For one thing, it takes a lot of space. For another, the decomposing food can breed harmful bacteria and release CO2 into the atmosphere.

Jeffrey Young has found a better way. In the 1990s, he ran a Bedford, Massachusetts, fish processing plant. "Sixty percent of what we took in was going to the landfill — a million pounds a week," Young says. State environmental regulators asked him to reduce the plant's footprint. So he started a division of the company to process its waste, turning the discarded fish parts into a fertilizer he called Organic Gem.

Farmers loved it. Organic Gem's natural ingredients did not bring the runoff that comes with chemical fertilizers, and they cured crops of their chemical dependencies, making them healthier, more resistant to disease. "Between 1994 and 2000, demand for the fertilizer was more than we could produce," Young says, "and so we started looking for other food waste."

The state tried to convince him to look at Massachusetts grocery stores, except that location put Young's company too far from the farms that were his customer base. His interest in a better location led Young to attend meetings of Recycle Florida Today, a professional association for businesses seeking to network on recycling. There, Young met executives from Publix, the Florida-based grocery store chain. "We were looking to get into the food business, and they were looking for a recycler of their food waste," Young says.

His company, Organic Recovery, would move to a Pompano Beach industrial park, where it would process some 17,000 tons of the solid food waste generated by South Florida Publix stores each year. "It was a perfect match," Young says.

But these mates didn't have a wedding; they eloped. In the nearly two years it took for Organic Recovery to relocate to South Florida, neither side told the Broward officials of its intentions — not until they staged a dramatic grand opening August 7, with Gov. Charlie Crist as guest of honor. "What these businesses are doing is a perfect example of how there is gold in green and economic opportunity in sustainable business practices," he declared.

As significant as the presence of the governor, so too was the absence of any official from a city in Broward County. Their invitations had not been lost in the mail.

In the weeks to follow, the deal between Organic Recovery and Publix would be celebrated on National Public Radio affiliate WLRN-FM (91.3) as well as in the Sun-Sentinel and Miami Herald. But none of those media reports acknowledged what should have been the elephant in the room: Will the entrenched, waste-hauling giants of South Florida, their pockets full of political friends, allow some New Englanders to waltz into town and take tons of their precious waste?

Ron Greenstein, a former state representative from Coconut Creek, chairs the Resource Recovery Board, the quasi-governmental body that oversees the disposal of trash for the communities that form Broward's waste district. And he's been trying like hell to get in touch with Jeffrey Young.

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