Cash for Trash

The view from the top stinks. That sweet, sulphuric stench that can come only from a 225-foot-high, mile-wide mound of garbage. At Sample and Powerline roads in Pompano Beach, this is Mount Trashmore, the tallest landform in South Florida, a monolothic monument to the region's waste, which has been fermenting for most of the past half-century.

This property belongs to Waste Management, the $20 billion company that rules the industry in South Florida and most every other market in America. John Albert, a company spokesman, points uphill, where a compactor's spiked wheels are crushing and shredding freshly dumped garbage, scattering a flock of crows and egrets.

"When we get done up there," Albert says, "we'll start filling down here."

It was farmland in 1961, when Broward County gave it to the trash hauler for use as a landfill. Of course, the term's a misnomer in South Florida, where one can hardly dig five feet before hitting water. Here, one can "fill" only the surface, and there's much less of it, since the surrounding lands have filled insteadwith houses, stores, and parking lots. This, plus our location at the end of a peninsula, has given rise to the fear that we could find ourselves trapped too close to our garbage.

That fear in turn gave rise to the creation of enormous trash-burning plants as well as rigid contracts with companies like Waste Management and Republic Industries for hauling the waste.

Thus, the county seems to have created a monster whose ravenous appetite demands more trash, lest the already high consumer costs break through the ceiling.

Next week, Broward County residents' trash bills will go up again, as they do every October 1, the start of a new fiscal year. The extra 50 cents or dollar a month is nothing next to the comfort of knowing that the waste one creates is someone else's problem.

Waste Management is happy to oblige. The company founded by Fort Lauderdale's own H. Wayne Huizenga enjoys a wider profit margin in the Broward County market than in any other, say industry sources. (A Waste Management spokeswoman refused to confirm or deny that report.)

Very little of the county's trash bounty, however, goes toward recycling efforts. According to critics, Broward's trash is handled recklessly: Most of the materials that can be recycled, easing the burden on our environment from tons of nondegradable trash, are not.

Why? Simple: The trash hauler in Broward County gets richer by not recycling, and if you believe the environmentalists, the campaign coffers of elected officials get richer by not demanding that the hauler recycle.

Says Vincent Mercandetti of the recycle-savvy, Lantana-based Southern Waste Systems (which is, incidentally, trying to get a piece of the county's recycling pie): "The county's waste management efforts are medieval by today's standards of recycling. As a result, the taxpayers are being hosed." SWS is seeking the authority to recycle construction materials.

Broward's retro style of handling trash seems impervious to the national trends that have taken hold in other urban areas. Even as new companies, like Organic Recovery of Pompano Beach, arrive in the region with new cost-cutting, eco-friendly technologies, they encounter the same waves of resistance that have held back reform for decades. Broward County has a dirty habit when it comes to garbage, and it won't come clean without a fight.

It's still dark out on a Wednesday morning in September when garbage truck drivers crowd the dispatch office at the Pompano Beach offices of Waste Management, the region's dominant trash hauler. "Did you fix my truck?" a driver yells over the Creole voices of Haitian drivers.

"No, but I got you a bike," cracks the dispatch man, whom they call Ace.

They're a bit like a squadron of pilots. All dressed in identical fluorescent jerseys and industrial boots, they fan out across a supermall-sized parking lot, climbing into their respective trucks. Then they roar through the front gates, one after the other. Theirs is a dangerous if mundane mission: Last year, trash collectors were more likely to be killed on the job than cops, a hazard that comes with working in traffic.

For one driver, Carlos Coleman, dawn finally breaks as his truck rumbles along the overpass connecting I-95 and I-595. He's headed for a residential neighborhood of Cooper City. Most of his clients are still sleeping, and he moves quickly, discreetly down the block of a subdivision, lifting the plastic tote carts with pincer fingers, which dump the trash into his front loader. Once it's filled, Coleman activates the hydraulics that lift the bin over his cab and dump its contents into the bed of his truck.

Shortly after helping a homeowner in jogging shorts hoist broken toilets into the front loader, Coleman looks at the reporter scribbling notes. "What kind of article is this?" he asks. Coleman seems puzzled that a reporter would find it worth tagging along with him on his route.

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Thomas Francis