Why Recycle?

It feels good to do it. But recycling doesn't always save money or protect the environment.

It's unlikely that you will ever meet Alan L. Stein, even though you indirectly pay part of his salary and, a little more directly, you work for him. Stein lives in Houston, Texas, and holds the title of vice president of Browning-Ferris Industries' Materials Marketing Group, a small but important division within the world's largest and most profitable garbage recycling company.

A family man with a Louisiana drawl, Stein runs a global brokerage house devoted to old newspapers, steel and aluminum cans, plastic bottles, and glass. Each week as many as 275,000 households in unincorporated Dade County and in twelve Dade municipalities (as well as the school system and most cruise ships) separate recyclable materials from kitchen garbage, rinse them off, and send them along to Stein.

Stein's people in Houston negotiate the sale of up to 300,000 tons per month of recyclable booty from the United States and Canada. With a single phone call, the Materials Marketing Group can send 50 boxcars of cans across a continent or load a half-dozen ships with newsprint bound for Asia. Eight percent of Browning-Ferris Industries' recylables go overseas. The newspaper from Dade travels in 1500-pound bales to paper mills in Georgia, and the various grades of plastic go mostly to Alabama, where they are remanufactured into bottles, carpet, and polyester. Dade's aluminum goes to Alabama too, after being shredded at a local plant. Sometimes, if the recyclable materials sell at a loss, you reimburse Stein for 25 percent of the deficit -- on top of the $2.16 per month he gets from each household to take away cans, bottles, jugs, and crumpled copies of New Times.

It's unclear whether meeting Alan Stein would be a pleasurable experience, even though underlings describe him as a modest sort who enjoys a good joke and the odd round of golf. The problem is that Stein spends most of his day talking in elliptical jargon about hammer mills and trommels, the evolving chemical composition of beverage jugs, and the infuriating penchant of metal pie plates to gum up recycling separation machinery; one senses that this arcana might well carry over into the cocktail hour. Forgivable, say his peers, because Stein is a high-firepower executive within a corporation so savvy, so focused and so profitable that Ayn Rand would weep with unfettered joy reading its prospectus. Stein and his confreres at Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) have made millionaires of more than a few stockholders. He began his relationship with you on January 22, 1990.

On that date Metro-Dade commissioners voted 6-3 to revolutionize the way Greater Miami deals with its garbage, awarding a seven-year, $32 million contract to only one of several competing private companies, which would then run the nation's largest curbside recycling program. (San Jose, California, had been the previous leader, with 180,000 participating households.)

Alan Stein wasn't present in the commission chambers, but Miami development lawyer Tom Carlos was. BFI had hired Carlos, a onetime fundraiser for Dade Commissioner Larry Hawkins, to represent its interests. Industrial Waste Services (IWS), another competing firm, retained a constellation of local attorneys and lobbyists that included stars such as Armando Gutierrez, Greg Borgognoni, and Eston "Dusty" Melton. Waste Management, Inc., weighed in with Hank Adorno (Commissioner Barry Schreiber's personal attorney, and a former business associate of ex-county manager Sergio Pereira) and Charles Citrin (Commissioner Joe Gersten's old campaign finance director).

In the weeks leading up to the vote, Gilbert Escudero, regional union director for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, threatened to sue Metro-Dade over the curbside recycling plan. Privatized collection of recyclable materials would shrink the solid waste stream and therefore cause county garbage collectors to be laid off, he claimed. Commissioner Harvey Ruvin argued that population growth would forestall any job losses, and he seems to have been right: There are 40 more men and women riding the county's garbage-collection fleet today than six years ago.

In late July 1989, Ruvin traveled to Seattle with a delegation of Dade officials and was wowed by the large-scale recycling effort he saw there. Up to that time Dade had been considering a cautious, 30,000-household pilot program. By January 1990, however, Ruvin was ready to skip the pilot program and launch a juggernaut.

BFI lost the battle but won the war: The county gave the contract to low-bidder IWS, but BFI eventually acquired IWS's British parent company, and with it all of its Dade operations.

The high-stakes-contract scramble and its attendant influence mongering was nothing new on Dade's political landscape, but the change it would bring about was. Why the dramatic policy shift on garbage? Where did the recycling fervor come from in the first place?

Recycling is a money saver, and it's good for the environment. These two supposed verities are firmly embedded in public consciousness, and had been even before 1987.

That was the year a seagoing barge named the Mobro 4000 left New York Harbor loaded with Long Islanders' household garbage and toxic incinerator ash. The barge wandered thousands of miles trying to unload its cargo, drawing more and more media attention every time another city rebuffed its smelly advances.

To reporters looking for a good story and environmental groups looking for increased membership, the Mobro 4000 was final and dramatic proof that America was running out of places to put its refuse. Panic had been fueled the year before by widely disseminated reports that half the nation's landfills were scheduled to close within five years. The reports didn't mention that most dumps are built to last only a decade.

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