Why Recycle?

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.

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.

Florida passed the Solid Waste Management Act in 1988, requiring counties with more than 50,000 residents to recycle 30 percent of their waste by 1995. In addition, the law requires that counties recycle 50 percent of the so-called "minimum five materials" -- newspaper, glass, plastic, aluminum, and steel.

As of the deadline, Dade and 22 of Florida's 36 participating counties had reached the overall 30 percent goal. None had gotten anywhere near the mark for the minimum five materials, yet none has been fined or otherwise punished by the state.

If the Mobro 4000 and the perceived landfill shortage had been the only causes of the recycling revolution, public enthusiasm might have been more subdued. But recycling was also the most visible manifestation of a new environmental religion whose holy texts include Charles Reich's The Greening of America (1970), Dennis and Donella Meadows's The Limits to Growth (1972), and E.F. Schumacher's Small Is Beautiful (1973). These best sellers forecast impending global doom brought on by population overload and rapacious consumerism, and each implicitly or explicitly prescribed recycling as one of several solutions. For many, household recycling has become a way to celebrate one's communion with the larger environmental movement, or at least to atone for one's complicity in what Time magazine in 1955 first called "the throwaway society." At its extreme, household-garbage sorting is a sacred rite and helps explain why, just as it was getting started, there were those who said Dade County's ambitious recycling program didn't go far enough.

"Mount Trashmore is not in trouble, we are," a reader named Bridget Figueroa wrote to the Miami Herald in December 1990. "Dade County does not need more room for garbage. It needs all of us to recycle completely, not partially, as now. We must make compost to build our soil, and demand less packaging from stores and manufacturers. We must stop using foam cups and request that fruit and meat be stored and packed in nonplastic trays."

Other readers also responded to a litany of columns and editorials in the Herald, such as one titled "Recycle, Recycle, Recycle," which urged cities to "get behind this worthwhile project quickly. Delay only postpones the inevitable." Another letter to the editor suggested instituting an emergency plan requiring business, industry, and condominium associations to recycle. (As of 1994, Dade had added 38 percent of all apartment houses and condos, and 41 percent of commercial establishments, to its program. Until recently it was the only county in the state that compelled businesses to recycle.)

Edmund F. Benson, who as chairman of the Dade County Recycling Task Force had led private citizens in their quest to help county officials design the recycling program, responded to a Herald article called "Troubles Mount for the Dump": "Each of us is to blame for the mess that we're making. It's time to make waste prevention an obsession and to treat Earth as if we planned to stay."

On the eve of the contract award for the recycling program, the Herald's editorial board wrote that "the county would earn money by selling recycled materials. Taxpayers would save by delaying the cost of constructing new landfills. The environmental benefits are also great." It added: "The program makes a lot of sense and the Commission should approve it. Granted, it's a small inconvenience to separate refuse.... But the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks."

If recyclable materials are valuable, why should you have to pay someone $2.16 every month to haul them away? Someone should be paying you, right? Why will Dade County have to spend a projected $10.5 million this year -- approximately $5.00 for every man, woman, and child in the county -- to make recycling work?

The reason is that recyclable materials aren't very valuable, and it costs a lot to gather them up. Curbside recycling programs generate revenues, but they almost never turn a profit. Recycling not only doesn't pay for itself, it rarely makes economic sense compared to alternative means of getting rid of the things we see fit to throw away.

There are exceptions, of course. Seattle spends one-tenth of one percent less money to recycle garbage than to dump it. In the Florida Keys, where geography and land-use regulation result in landfill charges (or "tipping fees") of $163 per ton -- three and a half times the state average -- recycling saves money. Recycling makes sense in some places at some times, and it also makes more or less sense for certain materials.

"Glass is worth next to nothing," says an executive at one corporate recycling giant, who refused to be named for fear of offending the glass companies he does business with. "In fact, in Florida you end up paying to get rid of almost all of it. That's just the beginning of the problem. Most of the glass gets broken somewhere along the line, in the bins or in the trucks or in the separation equipment. Then it contaminates everything else. It gets mixed in with aluminum, with paper, with plastic -- it drives the end-user nuts and lowers the price of other recyclables. I wish glass would go away. It belongs in landfills, where it takes up very little space and poses no environmental danger, because it's inert."

Aluminum, on the other hand, has always been a moneymaker. If you're very lucky, someone might pay you 25 cents per ton for mixed, broken glass in the current market. But there are any number of buyers that will pay up to twice that amount per pound for aluminum. Making aluminum from raw bauxite ore is a complicated, expensive process, but remanufacturing it from discarded cans is comparatively cheap and easy. That is why scavengers and other private entrepreneurs in Dade County were already recycling 65 percent of aluminum cans before the advent of mandatory recycling. (In 1990, after awarding the county recycling contract, commissioners bowed to the wishes of their new corporate garbage partner and made it a crime for citizens to scavenge cans by foot or bicycle.)

Prices for recyclables are famously volatile. In the months leading up to the inauguration of Dade's mandatory recycling program, used-newsprint prices throughout the Southeast dropped steadily from $30 per ton to $10 per ton, owing to a glut of newsprint created by other recycling programs already in effect. In the Northeast, cities that had been earning $40 per ton for old newspapers found themselves having to pay $40 per ton to have them hauled away.

Last year the price for newsprint shot above $100 per ton. Some people saw the temporary price spike as a sure sign that recycling's glory days had at last arrived. Hallandale, in Broward County, restarted the newspaper recycling program it had dropped in 1993, and the City of Miami rushed to begin selling the recyclable materials it had sometimes in the past simply incinerated. During the first five years of its recycling effort, Dade County didn't earn a dime from the sale of recyclable materials. (In fact it lost a grand total of $38,624 -- money it was contractually required to pay BFI to compensate for the company's revenue shortfalls.) In 1995, by contrast, BFI cleaned up. As provided by the contract, the county took a 25 percent cut of the proceeds -- a whopping $1.25 million.

But the market, led by newsprint, plunged. Today Waste News, an industry trade publication, lists the price of Miami newsprint at a high of zero and a low of minus five dollars per ton. In other words, it's momentarily hard for recyclers to give newspaper away to paper mills. Prices for other recyclables have also fallen. The portion of sales revenues from recyclables pocketed by Dade County dropped to $127,641 in the first quarter of fiscal 1996, and $65,363 in the second.

How does the cost of recycling compare to alternative disposal methods? A spokeswoman for Dade's solid waste department welcomed the question and asserted that recycling is significantly cheaper than dumping.

"From the beginning, there was a fervor to recycle," notes Deborah Higer, chief of service development for Metro-Dade's Department of Solid Waste Management. "But things run in cycles. We anticipated that the fervor would go away at some point and we would have to explain what we were doing. We never did recycling just for the sake of recycling at any cost. It had to make sense financially."

How is it that county officials believe that recycling makes sense financially? Because, Higer says, it costs $126 per ton to recycle garbage versus $132 per ton to landfill it.

The figures are patently, if unintentionally, misleading, and the reason is not hard to fathom.

The $132 it costs to dump a ton of garbage in a Dade County landfill comprises expenses of collection ($87) and of the actual disposal of the garbage ($45). But this latter component -- the tipping fee charged at Mount Trashmore -- reflects myriad fixed costs within the county solid waste system that have nothing to do with the actual operation or maintenance of the landfill, including expensive tidbits such as interest payments on $58 million of debt still owed on Dade's gigantic West Dade incinerator. Debt service alone accounts for twenty percent of the $45 tipping fee.

Higer says she thinks the true cost of landfill disposal in Dade may be as low as twenty dollars per ton. The figure for burying garbage used in her comparison therefore turns out to be considerably lower than it seems on first blush. On the other hand, the true cost of recycling a ton of garbage is in fact slightly more than Higer suggests, because her figures fail to take into consideration an additional $110,000 spent by the county last year on things like printing and telephone calls directly related to curbside recycling. Tapping a few keys on an office calculator, Higer acknowledges that if these things are taken into account, Dade Countians spent at least $1.3 million more last year than if they had simply buried their recyclables. Wouldn't a revised set of figures be helpful in evaluating the cost of recycling versus landfills?

Maybe not. In November 1995, the Solid Waste Association of North America compared the costs of various waste disposal methods in six U.S. urban areas. Among other findings of the researchers was the warning that the EPA has been misleading Congress for years about the relative merits of recycling by calculating costs the same way Dade does.

"Comparing the average cost per ton of managing garbage to the average cost per ton of [recycling] programs is inappropriate and can lead to erroneous conclusions," they wrote. "In general, the comparison ... does not provide any insights into economic impact.... [T]he importance of this lesson cannot be overstated."

The researchers, funded by the American Plastics Council and the U.S. Department of Energy, concluded that curbside recycling programs and waste-to-energy incinerators like Dade's tend to increase the cost of municipal solid waste disposal. In Palm Beach County, for example, recycling was eleven percent more expensive and waste-to-energy incineration nineteen percent more expensive than landfilling. Recycling also increases tipping fees at landfills. By diverting garbage to recycling programs, cities and counties make less money from their dumps and have to spread the fixed costs of their entire solid waste infrastructure over fewer and fewer new tons of revenue-producing refuse.

Owing to the Byzantine accounting practices employed by Dade's giant, $165 million garbage management system, county administrators have only the most tenuous grasp of the relative cost of recycling versus other alternatives. If per-ton cost analysis is fatally flawed, how else to do it?

According to Higer, the solid waste department has never conducted a study such as the one cited above. It did, however, develop a solid waste master plan -- a two-volume opus so detailed and lengthy it poses health risks to anyone required to carry it to a trusty recycling bin. Beginning in 1990, the department attempted to project the various costs of different disposal strategies using a method known as life cycle analysis, a financial methodology that takes into consideration expenses and benefits over the long haul. The conclusion: Building a new, high-tech landfill would take four to six years and result in an "average life cycle cost per ton" of $45. For curbside recycling, the comparable cost was believed to be "generally between $100 and $150."

The six-area analysis that included Palm Beach County reached its conclusions by carefully taking into account certain hidden costs associated with recycling that aren't commonly considered: the inefficiency built into collections systems like Dade's that employ two separate fleets of trucks (one for recyclables, one for garbage), the diesel fuel consumed transporting recyclable materials to market, the problems that result when people leave caps on plastic Sprite bottles or toss nondesignated trinkets such as polyfoam cups and egg cartons into the recycling bins. But neither Dade County nor the Solid Waste Association of North America has ever attempted to measure what may be the biggest hidden cost of all -- the free labor drained from households and businesses that annually separate, store, and carry to the curb millions of tons of glass, steel, aluminum, and paper.

If you spent only five minutes per week on these chores, and believe that your time is worth that of an entry-level Dade garbage collector ($20,600 per year), the resulting labor value is $3.58 tacked onto the $2.16 monthly fee you already pay -- an additional cost of $11.2 million for Dade householders. What about the space that your recycling bin or bucket takes up in your home? If you live in an average apartment, that means an additional hidden cost of 50 cents to a dollar per month at current market rates. Then there's the water consumed in rinsing out those cat food cans. That costs something too.

Your response may be that you don't mind donating a little time to a worthy cause. That's great. Alan Stein at BFI thanks you.

If recycling costs more than other means of waste disposal, then why do it? Recycling enthusiasts invariably look to their second argument: It's good for the environment.

But the environment in question may not be the one close at hand -- not, at least, that portion of the local environment often thought to be threatened by the evils of not recycling. Earlier this year, an examination by New Times of test data from surface water samples and nineteen ground-water monitoring wells showed that even the old, unlined cell at Mount Trashmore does not pollute, as it occasionally did in the past. (The two oldest garbage mountains have been sealed with a limestone cap, warding off rainfall that used to flush pollutants into nearby canals.) Contrary to popular belief, toxic effluent is not oozing out into Biscayne Bay from the waterfront dump. Of course, any landfill has the potential to become an environmental hazard at some point during its life cycle. But comparing the new cells that await future garbage to the old, low-tech cells is like comparing a Nissan Maxima to a Model T. The new cells exceed state and federal safety guidelines, which call for a network of leachate drainage pipes and a floor made of compacted limestone, a layer of clay, and a seamless 60-millimeter-thick plastic liner. Not only does Trashmore have plenty of available landfill space, the new cells are a paragon of modern design and safety standards. Even its alleged infamous aroma is mostly a myth -- the worst stink comes from a private Fifties-era dump hidden just across the road, which has spontaneously combusted for decades, sending smoke over the landscape for up to seven miles. It's exactly this sort of dump that gave landfills a bad name, and that found their scary nadir in Love Canal.

The idea that recycling is good for the environment has mostly to do with the concept of resource scarcity.

"I think that it's narrow and shortsighted to merely consider the economic value of recycling," says Harvey Ruvin, now the Clerk of Court for Dade County. "There are values here that go to future generations. It develops a mindset and a relationship with the environment that is more custodial, more in keeping with where we should be in the face of scarce natural resources."

Higer, the solid waste department spokeswoman, adds: "Conserving resources is the bottom line, or better use of resources."

The false landfill crisis of the late Eighties mirrored a broader public belief that the world is rapidly running out of basic resources. In 1972 The Limits to Growth predicted that the planet's supply of gold would be exhausted by 1981, mercury by 1985, tin by 1987, zinc by 1990, petroleum by 1992, and copper, lead, and natural gas by 1993. (In 1926 the federal Oil Conservation Board predicted that the supply of oil would last seven more years.) Today the Interior Department estimates that we have another 24 years' worth of gold, 40 years' worth of mercury and zinc, 28 of tin, 65 of copper, and 35 of lead. The scarcity of a substance is usually reflected in its price; the World Resources Institute estimates that during the two decades preceding 1990 the average price of all metals and minerals fell by more than 40 percent. Yet the notion of a fixed and dwindling supply of nonrenewable resources is stuck in the national consciousness.

The less-alarming timeframe now forecast by the federal government is based on current production rates and on known reserves. It doesn't take into account the fact that new mineral and petroleum deposits are discovered all the time, that technology improves as people compete to augment these resources or seek more efficient use of existing ones, and that history is replete with examples of societies developing alternatives to traditional materials and fuels. In the Nineteenth Century, a genuine crisis did arise when whales were hunted to near-extinction; whale oil, used for household lighting and industrial lubrication, doubled in price in a decade. But economic progress didn't grind to a halt. Consumers switched to petroleum and kept going. Before whale oil became expensive, petroleum had seemed a wildly unlikely alternative -- just as synthetic fuels, solar power, or nuclear energy seem to some consumers now.

What about petroleum, the black magic from which plastics spring, the mysterious liquid that propels us in decadent air-conditioned splendor down South Dixie Highway toward our next Tupperware party? Industrialized countries now use 23 percent less petroleum per unit of production than they did a quarter-century ago. Telecommuting alone saves millions of barrels per year in the U.S. Like the Mobro 4000 garbage barge and its search for a dumping ground, the OPEC oil embargo of the Seventies was a temporary phenomenon that left behind erroneous beliefs about permanent scarcity: In the first case, the Mobro's individual regulatory and disposal problems were used as anecdotal evidence of a paucity of landfill space. The oil embargo, with its resulting higher gas prices and government conservation campaigns, implied deeper, permanent shortages. Proven reserves of petroleum are expected to last another 46 years, natural gas 58 years at 1988 production rates, according to the American Petroleum Institute.

No scientist or economist has ever seriously claimed to know the extent of the world's undiscovered oil reserves, or sought to predict how changes in future technology, such as telecommuting, might allow more efficient use of them. This doesn't negate the fact that important resources like petroleum and bauxite are finite, but being finite doesn't make them essential or irreplaceable. We may run out of oil in 50 years or 500, but unless we run out of the ability to think, it's not necessarily the end of the world.

Perhaps the favorite mantra of recyclers is that every ton of recycled newspapers saves seventeen trees. The value of this salvation is not absolute. If you drive from Miami to one of the paper mills that dot southern Georgia, you will see tobacco fields, corn fields, soybean fields, pasturage, and a vast expanse of roadside tree farms (and placards bearing the slogan "Trees Grow Jobs" tacked to some of the trunks, supplied to farmers as part of a federal government program to boost national timber supplies). The time to conserve pristine forests was a century or two ago, when they existed on a large scale. Today the pulpwood used by paper mills is not clear-cut from virgin groves but grown as an agricultural crop like any other. Trees are hardly nonrenewable resources, as evidenced by the fact that U.S. timber supplies are three times what they were in 1920. The U.S. Forest Service reports that the production of timber between 1950 and 1992 increased by eight percent annually.

The remanufacturing of recyclables like paper, glass, and plastic has been shown to save energy, but if you lived in coastal southern Georgia, you might have trouble appreciating this virtue. De-inking old newspapers and remanufacturing them into fresh newsprint creates smells, pollution, noise, and visual blight, just as producing virgin paper does.

If one considers what goes into the recycling of many plastic soda bottles and automobile batteries, the picture can become downright disturbing. In June last year an Associated Press reporter visited several makeshift factories in India where teenagers and children melt plastic bottles and cut open car batteries. The laborers make about 30 cents a day and wear no gloves or masks to protect themselves from acid burns and toxic fumes; the factories operate without any pollution controls. According to Greenpeace, the environmental activist organization, the U.S. exported 23 shiploads of plastic beverage bottles to India in 1995. Pakistan and Bangladesh also received enormous shipments of recylables.

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."

Bruce Ranck, president and CEO of BFI, recently wrote to stockholders and described how the corporation was expanding into Hong Kong, the Netherlands, and also New York City following the indictment of members of the Big Apple's 40-year-old, Mafia-controlled garbage cartel. He explained that BFI had racked up record numbers in 1995 -- revenues up 34 percent, profit up 38 percent, earnings per share up 30 percent.

"The value of our long-term commitment to recycling was demonstrated this year, with revenues approaching $700 million accompanied by healthy profits," Ranck stated. "That's a far cry from the ten million dollars in revenue and the operating losses we had just six short years ago. Recycling is here to stay, and we expect it to remain a permanent part of how materials are managed around the world.... This is a good business for us.


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