Why Recycle?

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

The perceived garbage glut coincided with concerns about how it would be handled. In the Eighties, landfills across the country were in transition. Smaller, older dumps with little in the way of ecological safeguards were being closed and replaced by larger, more sophisticated landfills. In 1980 Florida had 500 open dumps. None had plastic liners or pump systems to keep garbage leachate from oozing into the ground and contaminating drinking water supplies. Workers at dumps often burned garbage to save space, thereby polluting the air. Today the Sunshine State has only 101 garbage landfills, but they're both bigger and safer, thanks to a thicket of new federal and state regulations. Throughout the country, there's more landfill space than ever before.

As the Mobro 4000 was passing into legend and Newsweek published a cover story about garbage called "Buried Alive," Dade County administrators announced that we faced our own solid waste crisis. Chief solid waste engineer John Chorlog said in 1991 that unless something was done fast, the South Dade Solid Waste Disposal Facility -- a.k.a. Mount Trashmore -- would run out of landfill space within months.

In 1992 something was done. Not everyone liked the solution; there were protests, shouting matches, a couple of near fistfights at public hearings. But when the dust settled, state environmental regulators and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finally approved a plan to expand Greater Miami's principal landfill, adding two more garbage "cells" to the three that were filling up. They also raised the allowable height for each new garbage mountain, from 150 to nearly 260 feet -- an act that will someday make Mount Trashmore the highest geological feature along America's eastern shoreline.

An argument can always be made that we are running out of landfill space. Even the most ardent recycling buffs agree that a metropolis must continue to bury some of its waste, so eventually Dade County will have to build another dump -- or else start shipping garbage out of the county. Nowadays local officials are less eager to predict exactly when Trashmore might fill up. Because of dramatic and unpredicted changes in South Florida's garbage economics that have occurred in recent years, the answer simply isn't clear.

What is clear, although not widely known, is that the county now has more empty landfill space than ever before -- room enough for 9.3 million more tons of garbage. Approximately 7.4 million tons have been dumped at Mount Trashmore since it opened sixteen years ago.

Moreover, the dump is filling up at a record slow pace because of an exodus of nearly a million tons a year of solid waste to two new "mass-burn" incinerators in Broward County. These incinerators -- the largest public works project in Broward history -- started doing business five years ago, but their magnetic effect on Dade's garbage really began to be felt after a 1994 Supreme Court decision. The court ruled that metropolitan governments such as Dade's could no longer dictate what individual cities do with their garbage; Sweetwater, Hialeah Gardens, Coral Gables, and several other municipalities started saving money by shipping their waste to Broward instead of participating in Dade County's solid waste system.

Dade administrators hope to recapture some of this wayward garbage, and its additional fees, by enticing municipalities into long-term hauling contracts, but they acknowledge that things will never be the same. Dade County once sent as much as 68 percent of its solid waste to landfills -- 14,000 tons per week at Mount Trashmore alone. Last year, according to county records, the dump buried only about 41,000 tons total, or one-seventeenth the amount it used to handle. Interestingly, the last of Trashmore's original three garbage cells, the one that was supposed to fill up within months back in 1991, still hasn't.

In the meantime, regional landfill capacity has expanded. In 1992 a private company called Chambers Waste Systems announced the opening of the Berman Road landfill in Okeechobee County. The 2800-acre state-of-the-art garbage dump is one of the biggest in Florida, and among the cheapest to use. The City of Key West trucks all its incinerator ash and construction debris north to Okeechobee County and still pays only $60 per ton -- less than half what it would have to pay to leave the material in the Keys. The Berman Road landfill is so vast that several Mount Trashmores would be dwarfed inside it. Workers there bury 2000 tons of refuse a day. Even at 7000 tons a day, the projected maximum, the Okeechobee site can last 50 years.

In retrospect, the landfill "crisis" was a mirage, locally and nationally. But the recycling campaign it launched kept steaming ahead.

In early 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would be a good idea for America to change some of its garbage habits, and suggested that local governments try to recycle 25 percent of their solid waste. At the time, Dade County and the rest of the nation recycled about ten percent.

In an interview with the New York Times two months ago, former EPA administrator J. Winston Porter suggested that the national recycling goal was inspired largely by the Mobro 4000 saga, and said the 25 percent recycling target was always meant to be "strictly voluntary." But politicians quickly realized that recycling was a feel-good issue with no apparent downside, and states fell over themselves enacting mandatory recycling laws with goals well in excess of the EPA's 25 percent. New Jersey set its sights the highest -- 60 percent -- and fourteen states established 50 percent targets.

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