Cash for Trash

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

"I think it's a great program," he says of the Organic Recovery-Publix partnership. If so, he has a funny way of expressing congratulations. Shortly after he saw the August 7 news release that heralded the grocery store's new recycling plan, Greenstein had the board's attorney fire off a letter informing the partners that they were in violation of the flow control ordinances. At an August 26 meeting, the board's attorney advised the franchise cities to investigate the recycling program.

As a provision of the 1987 agreement, the franchise communities each passed flow control ordinances stipulating that all municipal waste within the district be sent to the incinerators, the better to pay back those bonds for the incinerators' construction. According to the ordinances, that food waste being recycled was supposed to be burned. "We haven't heard back from them," Greenstein says of Organic Recovery.

The 17,000 tons of solid food waste per year processed at Organic Recovery is a modest percentage of the roughly 2.6 million tons of solid waste that flows through the district. But from the Broward waste district's perspective, the deal sets a scary precedent. If Publix, one of the biggest generators of waste in the state, is allowed to divert its waste from the landfills and incinerators, then other businesses may do the same. And with less waste going to the landfills and incinerators, the cities in the district will fall short of their put-or-pay requirements, meaning they'll have to dig into their own general funds to make up the difference. In the cockamamie world of South Florida waste, a recycling revolution would mean financial disaster.

Asked about how he'll respond to the county waste district, Young says, "No comment." But when asked earlier about the material he receives from Publix, he is circumspect, noting that it is "source-separated," not discarded. This may seem an exercise in semantics, except that the distinction is critical if it comes up in a future court case. The moment it becomes waste, the county's district gives the trash hauler legal claim to it. So what Organic Recovery and Publix would argue is that it never becomes waste. Publix employees toss the food waste into refrigerated bins provided by Organic Recovery, which picks them up at the site. Nonfood waste goes into conventional Dumpsters.

This conflict is familiar to attorney Sandy Pollack, director of legal services for Southern Waste Systems, the Lantana company that, like Organic Recovery, aims to recycle materials that would mostly be incinerated or dumped in landfills. Only with SWS, it's construction and demolition debris — called simply C&D within the industry — which comprises roughly 40 percent of the entire waste stream. But it may as well be food waste.

"They have the same problem that we have," Pollack says of Organic Recovery. As in that case, the hauling companies that have franchise agreements in Broward cities lay claim to the material that SWS would recycle. Only in SWS' case, the distinction is between "industrial byproducts," which state law allows to be recycled, and "discarded" material, to which the franchise hauler is entitled.

Most of the C&D currently collected by SWS comes from Palm Beach County, where the exclusive franchise system of waste hauling isn't nearly as widespread as in Broward, which Pollack calls "a locked-up community."

SWS has four recycling centers in South Florida, one at its corporate headquarters in Lantana. There, an excavator plucks the waste out of a Dumpster and puts it on a couple of belts that move it through a blower that extracts plastic. Waste of under ten inches is sifted out; waste that is more than ten inches gets ground into smaller chunks. From there, workers segregate the material. Concrete is separated from metal. Plastic is another category. So is rock. And wood is separated to be sold as mulch or burned in coal-generation plants for electricity. One more worker picks up nonrecyclables. Each variety falls into its own compartment, the size of those at a self-serve car wash, until a bulldozer pushes the materials out and into a buyer's vehicle.

In this fashion, SWS recycles at least 70 percent of the material it receives, a rate that dwarfs that of Waste Management, or any other hauler, whose built-in profits give them less financial incentive to invest in the costly business of sorting, then recycling.

For SWS, whatever can't be recycled — the remaining 30 percent or less — goes to a landfill. But since the material collected by SWS is nonputrescible (that is, it doesn't rot in a way that could seep into the groundwater), it can be placed in landfills without an expensive liner system, nor fear of environmental damage. Plus, since SWS makes money by selling disposed materials to recyclers, it can afford to cut rates for collection.

Over the sound of a bulldozer, Pollack says with evident pride, "Yesterday, 1,800 cubic yards of material came in, and 1,800 cubic yards of recycled material left."

But that recycling center can process 1,200 tons of material per day. It's not operating at full capacity partly because the housing slump means less available C&D. And partly because the company can't legally collect the C&D in cities where franchise agreements give those materials to the hauler. Last year, Pollack asked the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to give SWS a permit to collect C&D materials on the grounds that these were industrial byproducts — not discarded — and thus, eligible to be recycled.

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