Why Recycle?

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

The fact that recycling garbage doesn't make it simply disappear became clear soon after Dade launched its curbside campaign, and many of the problems resembled those traditionally associated with landfills and incinerators. Agripost, a $25 million Opa-locka composting factory that had once been described as the future cornerstone of the county's recycling effort, eventually closed after complaints of foul odors were made by the faculty of an elementary school across the street. Reuter Recycling, a Pembroke Pines firm, shut down in 1992 after being forced by the vagaries of the market to dump tons of material into landfills. Poinciana Recycling Center, a Liberty City plant, found itself overwhelmed by tons of unsightly plastic and soggy newspapers. County employees had to be sent in to clean up the mess.

Despite evidence that mandatory recycling is a comparatively costly method to handle garbage and that claims of its environmental beneficence might be largely symbolic or emotional, there have been few efforts to dump the program.

Last October in Tallahassee, the Senate Natural Resources Committee voted 5-4 to end the state recycling requirement, but outraged bureaucrats and recycling industry lobbyists pureed the bill before it reached the floor of the Senate.

Nor was the bill an opening salvo against recycling orthodoxy, as it seemed at first glance. A majority of committee members simply felt that other environmental concerns -- specifically, an invasion of hydrilla plants choking Central Florida waterways -- warranted a piece of the $25 million earmarked for recycling programs. The senators reasoned that if state grants for recycling were cut, then recycling should no longer be mandatory, just encouraged -- the original position of the EPA eight years ago.

Rick Dantzler, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, backed away from the proposal and eventually funded his hydrilla war from other sources.

"The goal was to find the money, not wipe out recycling," a Dantzler aide recalls. "It came down to monetary nuts and bolts. We've got lakes up here you could walk across, that's how bad the weeds are. It's a real environmental concern. But I think there was such an outcry from some of the counties that the bill just became unimportant.

"The state originally required the counties to put these recycling programs in place with the full intent that they would wean themselves from the legislature. But the counties were saying, 'We're just not ready -- you can't do this to us!' Then there were the grassroots recycling advocates. We got letters from everyone within shooting distance."

Today the acolytes of recycling are everywhere, and the garbage guilt that found its initial expression in government programs has spawned a $170 billion private sector "environmental protection" industry that spans the globe.

Many recycling enthusiasts claim that it is only a matter of time before government programs, household recycling fees, and de facto price supports for recyclable materials wither away and leave the free market running the show. In the same breath, they talk about "closing the loop" on recyclable materials -- encouraging the citizenry to buy remanufactured products that represent the endpoint of the recycling stream. This, they acknowledge, will require further educational campaigns, and continuing legislative coercion -- a more or less consistent drumbeat of persuasion.

Recycling was supposed to be the solution to a problem but has in many ways become a means to its own end. Along the way, a relentless propaganda campaign aimed at schoolchildren has produced a generation of little nags whose energetic credulity ultimately serves the interests of waste-management corporations, national environmental groups, and politicians. The opposite end of the age spectrum is also full of true believers. The president of a local aluminum recycling company has noted that South Florida's oldsters make great recyclers because they remember the enforced sacrifices of World War II and the Great Depression.

Some observers see a growing impatience with mandatory recycling.
"I've noticed fewer and fewer people doing it," says Fernando Menoyo, the owner of a five-unit apartment house in Coral Gables. "My building is one of the few on the block that still recycles on a regular basis. A lot of landlords let the recycling bins get lost and never call the City for new ones. And the guys from the recycling company, I've caught them dumping stuff from the recycling bins into garbage Dumpsters -- it's easier to do that than walk back and forth to their truck. I've also noticed that recycling creates a lot of trash. The newspapers blow out of the bins, and then every Thursday morning there's cans and other things on the ground that the collectors have dropped."

A lawyer who works in the county clerk's office says she's fed up with the strictures of enforced workplace recycling. She refused to give her name for fear of offending her boss, recycling visionary Harvey Ruvin, but had this to say: "Where I work we aren't allowed to have garbage cans any more, just recycling bins. You know what that means? It means I have to walk all the way down the hall to the ladies' room to throw away an apple core. It's insane. This has gone totally over the edge."

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