Cash for Trash

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

Correspondence between the two sides shows the state agency trying to dissuade SWS for six months. Ultimately, the agency ruled that state law had not attached a clear enough definition to industrial byproducts and that they would be treated as discarded material. That meant C&D would mostly be burned by the hauler, not recycled by SWS.

When it comes down to questions of interpretation, the side with better political connections tends to win.

For five years, Pollack has been arguing his case, but at every venue, the hauler has an advantage. To be granted permission to pick up C&D in one city means challenging the constitutionality of flow control ordinances in municipal courts, ruled by magistrates who Pollack suspects have close ties to the city commissioners, who get campaign donations from franchise haulers and who may want to send C&D materials to the incinerator to avoid put-or-pay penalties.

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.

Still, Pollack is so convinced he's right, he remains baffled by the resistance he's encountered at every level of government.

"Not only is it legally wrong," Pollack says, "it's morally wrong. How can you discourage recycling?"

But maybe the hard-charging Pollack has weakened the resistance so that Organic Recovery will have better luck. Certainly, the company flexed some muscle by attracting an ally like Crist to its grand opening. And the company was either very fortunate or very clever in attracting a wave of positive news coverage for the plant's opening. Now, if the franchise haulers try to shut down Organic Recovery, they run the risk of being outflanked by the governor or at least exposed in the media.

A less optimistic observer, however, would worry whether Organic Recovery will go the way of Coastal Carting. In the mid-'90s, this company seized upon the same C&D materials as SWS, only Coastal Carting was even more aggressive, contracting with developers and demolition companies without consulting the cities or the waste district. When officials with the county's waste district learned of it, they threatened to revoke the company's license and levy fines. So Coastal Carting filed a lawsuit against the county.

The company had nowhere near the resources of their adversaries, but lead attorney Scott Mager had the law on his side. After a grueling discovery period that lasted 29 months, a federal court judge granted Coastal Carting's motion for summary judgment, saying that "Broward County is hoarding the waste" and that the flow control ordinance — the very same one that has restricted SWS and that threatens the future of Organic Recovery — "is unconstitutional on its face."

Says Mager: "It was a tremendous victory, because nobody had won a case against the trash industry before." After the ruling, the only chore left was to stage a trial for calculating the damages inflicted by the county against Coastal Carting.

The amount had the potential to be astronomical — possibly enough to threaten the stability of the waste district. That's a golden goose it appears the franchise trash haulers couldn't bear to kill. Before the judge could issue an award for damages, Waste Management bought Coastal Carting, dismissed the lawsuit, and folded the company.

"It was so detrimental," Mager says of the court's ruling, "that [Waste Management's] only option was to pay a lot of money to take over." Whatever Waste Management paid — the company refused to release that figure — Mager suspects it's less than what it stood to lose from the collapse of Broward's solid waste district. "It was a case of 'Can't beat 'em? Buy 'em,' " he says.

Pollack has studied that case, and he sees it as proof that the franchise haulers like Waste Management aren't nearly as tough as they talk. They may threaten to raise the collection rates if the contract cities give their blessing to companies like SWS and Organic Recovery. But he thinks the haulers are making so much money that even if they lost that waste, they would still make a handsome profit. In Palm Beach County, cities like West Palm Beach have called the hauler's bluff, giving permits to C&D collectors without seeing a hike in pickup rates.

Since the franchise haulers' ledgers are not public record, there's no way to know exactly how much profit is built into the rates.

Fort Lauderdale, the biggest city within the Broward Solid Waste District, may also have the biggest gripe. The city's residential consumers pay $35 a month for curbside pick up, tops in the region . This is what inspired Mayor Naugle to cast Waste Management in an unsavory metaphor: "I made a statement about how 'If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas,' " he laughs. When the hauling giant complained, the ever-contrite Naugle apologized — to the dogs, lest they feel slandered by comparison to Waste Management executives.

Greenstein, of the county's Resource Recovery Board, treats those same executives as partners. Although he concedes that the franchise system has not delivered the cost savings its member cities might have hoped for, he argues that it was the best solution to the county's old waste program and that when the contract ends in 2013, the county and its haulers will devise a new program that accommodates new technologies for recycling.

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