If you live in the unincorporated areas of Miami-Dade County, your blue recycling bins are still getting picked up and processed as usual. But residents of some county municipalities won't have their plastic bottles and cardboard boxes recycled for the foreseeable future.
The onset of COVID-19 has ravaged the solid-waste disposal industry, as managers try to facilitate garbage collection and processing while keeping their workers separated and healthy. Several sanitation workers who pick up recycling bins in the City of Miami had to be quarantined after experiencing COVID symptoms, according to solid waste director Mario Nuñez, and staffing concerns led to the decision to suspend the city's recycling program.
"The bottom line is the staffing concerns. The pandemic is affecting everyone, and City of Miami employees are humans like anyone else," Nuñez tells New Times.
On the other side of the equation, some processing plants that do the work of recycling the materials cities collect have closed owing to the pandemic.
In an April 15 email to Nuñez, processing company Waste Connections said it would be temporarily closing its plant. Waste Connections provides recycling services for the cities of Miami and Hialeah, both of which have suspended their recycling programs, in part because of the plant closure.
Meanwhile, Miami-Dade County has continued recycling throughout the pandemic, seemingly without a hitch.
The county contracts with two companies for recycling collection — Waste Connections and Coastal Waste & Recycling — and a third, Waste Management, for processing. Waste Management has maintained the operation of its recycling plant during the pandemic and taken extra precautions to protect its workforce.
"Recycling has been deemed an essential service," says Dawn McCormack, director of communications for Waste Management. "All our workers, drivers, and processing staff, always wear protective gear like gloves and goggles, and generally workers have some type of mask on because of the dust."
McCormack says recycling is instrumental in local supply chains, especially in the coronavirus era. Toilet paper, paper towels, and all the stuff people were scrambling for at the beginning of the lockdowns can all be made with recyclable materials, so recycling is essential to the economy, she says.
Despite those benefits, recycling can come at a major cost to some municipalities, and there's another factor that's led to the collapse of recycling programs in Miami: bad garbage habits.
"Part of the challenge for these cities is maybe not related to COVID, but more about the contamination by nonrecyclables," says McCormack.
Depending on your city's program, only certain things can be recycled. Major recyclable items include glass, plastic bottles, aluminum cans, cardboard, and paper. Putting anything not on that list into a recycling bin makes the work harder for processers and inhibits recycling. Also, whatever gets thrown in the bin needs to be washed to get off any food or beverage residue. Otherwise, it can contaminate everything else that's in there.
"In some areas, it's 30 to 40 percent garbage in recycling containers, which makes it more expensive," McCormack says.
In the City of Hialeah, that percentage of garbage is even higher, according to City Councilman Paul Hernandez.
"Our public works director presented us with a recycling study. One of the biggest takeaways was that 60 percent of the material in residents' bins is nonrecyclable, which means the city has to pay for all of that," Hernandez tells New Times. "Sixty percent is unheard of, and it's really impacting the city in a negative way."
The recycling study by Hialeah public works director Armando Vidal found that six out of every ten loads of recycling picked up in the city are rejected and sent to a landfill, and such a high contamination rate made the program unfeasible. That, mixed with the pandemic, spelled death for recycling in Hialeah as it stands now.
Hialeah residents were told to continue placing their recyclables in their proper bins despite the program's suspension, which Hernandez says is to avoid filling up the regular trash bin too quickly.
The City of Miami, meanwhile, has told residents to place all trash and recycling into one bin to keep things simple and efficient. Nuñez says Miami trash and recyclables are being sent to an "Energy From Waste" facility operated by a company called Covanta in Doral. The facility burns municipal waste to boil water into steam, which turns a turbine and creates electricity. The process reduces space used in landfills and provides power, but it can potentially lead to air pollution, though Covanta says it has technologies in place to curb emissions.
The city is embracing the garbage-to-energy system as a way to circumvent the use of landfills until the coronavirus subsides and recycling can return. Nuñez lauds it as part of the sometimes-omitted fourth "R" in the "reduce, re-use, recycle" saying: renew.
"We are renewing and repurposing those materials to produce energy. We are not taking the recyclables to a landfill," he says.
But in Hialeah, recyclables and trash are going to the landfill for the foreseeable future. Hernandez is hopeful that a proposal will be put forth at next week's city council meeting for a new recycling campaign next year.
Hernandez says he recommended to Vidal that perhaps the city could take a "gap year" on recycling and use the money that would otherwise be paid to processers to teach the people of Hialeah how to properly recycle.
"The money we'd save, we could use it to educate our constituency, do outreach, have information sent directly to households on proper methods," Hernandez says.
Hernandez mused on the ideas of adding pictures on bins to demonstrate what can be recycled, having clear bins that allow waste workers to inspect the container before collecting, and suspending recycling pickups from households that consistently contaminate their bins.
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"I don't like that it's happening, but this is the best thing we could do to ensure we have a long-lasting recycling program. We can't have those people continue to contributing this waste and ruin the program for everyone," he says.
Vidal took well to his recommendations, Hernandez says, and there could be a proposal before the council on July 28.
Nuñez echoed Hernandez's sentiments about the need for a better understanding of how to recycle if Miami wishes to be more environmentally sustainable.
"I'm a strong believer in and I'm very passionate about recycling, but doing so is not only about collecting and processing but also about environmental education," Nuñez says.