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Future Of Recycling Uncertain For Some Florida Communities

Colorful boxes are bundled together and ready for recycling
Photo by Michael Jin on Unsplash

A little more than ten years ago, Florida set a goal to recycle 75% of its waste by this year. The state reached 60% in 2016, but since then it’s been backsliding. Now about 50% of the state’s trash is recycled. And for the past few years, recycling markets have been getting worse—leading the recycling programs in some communities to close. Now officials say Tallahassee’s program could be next.

Marpan recently wrote a letter to the Tallahassee and Leon County commissions explaining it now costs more money to collect and sort materials than Marpan can make back by selling them. Marpan is giving officials a year to come up with a plan, or President Kim Williams says it could have to close. Bryan Desloge is the chairman of the county commission.

“The running joke, that’s really not that funny these days, is that is sounds like sustainability is really becoming financially unsustainable. And the question is how do you continue down a path that’s really not supportable long term,” Desloge said.

Florida’s capital city isn’t alone. Keyna Cory is the executive director of the Florida Recycling Partnership. She says much of the trouble with recycling goes back to two years ago.

“So China is where we used to ship the majority of our recycled materials. They would accept them, they processed them and used them," Cory said. "About two years ago they decided to put a strict ban on how much contamination could be in these bales of recycled materials that were sent to them."

Before, Cory says China accepted a contamination rate of 20%. Now, that’s down to about .5%. That means China won’t accept recyclables from most single stream processors like Marpan. And it means there’s more supply than demand within the U.S.

“And that’s really been one of our biggest problems. If you have contaminated materials and you’re not selling them, then it’s a serious problem," Cory said.  "You have to remember with recyclables, if you’re not selling them, it’s not recyclable. We have to find more markets that we can ship these materials to.”

Cory says another important step is education. Floridians need to learn how to get better at recycling so more places will be interested in accepting the materials. Cory says state lawmakers are floating a plan to include funding for recycling education in the budget this year. And she says people should also learn recycling isn’t necessarily free.

Some companies in the very beginning when they started doing the recycling programs, they built that into the cost of the solid waste collection because they usually did both. Now it’s costing them more to get rid of the recyclables because people are putting too much solid waste in it," Cory said. "But we still have those materials and those materials have to go somewhere. So would you rather get them processed and have them as a recyclable material or do you want to permit and allow another landfill in our state?”

Cory says ensuring materials get recycled could mean processing centers will have to start charging more and garbage fees could go up. In the meantime, she says her group is partnering with the Department of Environmental Protection to look into what the state’s new recycling goals should be.