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Broward leaders eye new recycling solutions as landfill nears capacity

Landfills produce a lot of methane, a heat-trapping gas that contributes to global warming. With scientists calling for cuts in methane emissions, there are challenges to curbing these emissions from landfills, starting with even quantifying them. Pictured here is Waste Management landfill in Livermore, Calif.
Waste Management landfill in Livermore, Calif.

South Florida is bad at recycling. Broward County leaders are planning to change that.

Nationally, about 20 percent of what gets thrown into recycling bins is not recyclable – it's trash. In Miami-Dade County that number is estimated to be as high as 49%. Broward County houses one of the largest trash processing plants in the country — and the numbers are not much better.

The Reuters recycling center, owned by Waste Management, is where the majority of south Florida sends its recyclables. It sits on the western limits of Pembroke Pines.

The center takes in discarded cardboard, glass, aluminum, plastic and other recyclables from Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and parts of Collier County for recycling.

The facility is the largest recycling center in the southeastern United States and can process up to 50 tons of recyclables an hour. The problem, according to a recent report, is that contamination — trash thrown into recycling bins that isn't supposed to be there — slows and sometimes negates the work being done to recycle the trash.

A newly formed group of city and municipality leaders have been working on a solution — along with Waste Management's plans for new facilities — that could bring Broward into a greener future.

"Everyone seems to kind of be on the same boat: we're all going to work together. Recycling is linked to our sustainability," wrote Jess Swanson, who reported on public and private efforts to increase recycling in the county for Fort Lauderdale Magazine.

WLRN’s Gerard Albert III spoke with Swanson about the county's challenges and plans. Below is an excerpt from the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

ALBERT: Let’s start with the big picture. The Monarch Hill landfill in Pompano Beach, which is more than 20 stories high and nicknamed “Mount Trashmore”, is running out of space. What are county leaders saying about the urgent need to recycle more efficiently?

SWANSON: Beam Furr is a Commissioner in Broward County. He has always been passionate about recycling. And when you look at these numbers, it is so easy to get depressed, discouraged, and for whatever reason, he is so optimistic, so cheerful. He has so many ideas of solutions. He says he wants Broward County to become the Silicon Valley of resilience.

The complicated thing is getting all the different municipalities to work together and finding a solution that works. The smaller municipalities simply can't afford recycling. Recycling is expensive. It costs probably double what it costs to take it to a landfill. And on top of that, there was a time when you would actually get paid for your recycling. It was actually a revenue for them. So after China stopped accepting the U.S. plastics in 2018, that sort of turned the recycling market as we knew it on its head.

Broward County has been trying to figure out the best way to recycle trash for almost 40 years. In the 1980s a group called the Resource Recovery Board was formed to help solve some of the issues. What can you tell us about that group?

It was an inter-local agreement with a lot of the municipalities in Broward County, not all of them. And they kind of all work together to figure out where to shuttle its waste. It was just much more efficient. And when that [agreement] ran out in 2013 they made the decision to not renew it.

When that group disbanded in 2013 things went downhill for recycling in Broward. But now a new group, similar to the Resource Recovery Board has formed. What is the Solid Waste Working Group?

It's exciting. There's representatives from each of the municipalities in Broward that work on the Solid Waste Working Group. They all meet and then they go back to their constituents and they explain what's been talked about, what are they're going through. Now they're in the process of explaining that they're ready to hire a firm to make a regional masterplan. Like a comprehensive countywide recycling plan with the new facilities, what it needs and ultimately how much it's going to cost.

You spoke with Waste Management officials and Broward County commissioners. Everyone seemed to want to fix the problem and do it in a sustainable way. Is that the feeling you got as well?

So everyone seems to kind of be on the same boat: we're all going to work together. Recycling is linked to our sustainability, and even though it's more expensive to do all of these things that we need to ensure for our future, they're starting to do that same concept with recycling.

Gerard Albert III covers Broward County. He is a former WLRN intern who graduated from Florida International University. He can be reached atgalbert@wlrnnews.org
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