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The Recycling Problem: County Loses Money to Recycling Program

News Editor

In Fiscal Year 2022, running the recycling program at the Dade County Transfer Station cost the county over $65,000. The future of recycling looks grim – not only for Dade, but across the nation.

Melissa Bradford, commissioner for district four, has spent significant time looking into the issue and learning more about the transfer station. Billy Massengale, director of public works, has also been concerned about the issue for a long while as he’s had a first-hand look at the changes in recycling over the years.

Massengale brought the issue before the county commission on March 2, but the commission has been hearing about the issue for a while, especially when China banned certain waste materials at the end of 2017.

At this meeting, Robert Goff, commissioner for district four, said, “This discussion’s been going on for a long time. We knew this would come when China stopped taking recycling.”

Photo by Lydia Berglar – The pile of aluminum cans was filled with plastic and other waste when the Sentinel visited the recycling center.

The official Fiscal Year 2022 cost breakdown from the county is as follows:

  • Maintenance & Operations: $24,000
  • Process: $63,960
  • Transport: $4,620
  • Total Cost: $92,580

A profit of $26,957 from selling recycling brought the net loss to $65,623.

Bradford explained to the Sentinel that the county used to make a profit from selling recycling outside of the county, saying, “There were times, especially before COVID-19, when recycling was bringing in a profit, mainly from cardboard and some plastic. Glass has always been a problem. Nobody is taking glass anymore because there’s no profit from it.”

Massengale reported, “We used to recycle glass but stopped about 15 or 16 years ago. We didn’t make any money on it, so we donated it to Orange Grove. We had to separate the different colored glasses. Then Orange Grove started charging to accept it.”

Massengale explained that glass is not as harmful in landfills as some other waste. “With glass, there’s no leaching, no contamination, and it breaks down into sand. That sand can then keep other contaminants from leaking out of the landfill.”

Regarding plastics, Massengale reported, “Plastics used to sell for five to six cents a pound, but now it’s worth almost nothing.” Paper also brings in no money.

Regarding cardboard, (the immediate issue he brought before the commission), Massengale said, “We went from making $160 per ton of cardboard to $5 per ton.”

Photo by Lydia Berglar – Expensive machinery such as cardboard and plastic balers (plastic baler shown here) and transport trucks can create maintenance expenses.

In recent years, significantly more cardboard passes through the transfer station because many companies have stopped recycling their own cardboard. Massengale noted that some local stores collected cardboard and sold it themselves, but it’s no longer financially profitable. “They can’t make any money from it, so they drop it off for the county to deal with.”

Bradford said, “There’s just not a lot of money in recycling, period. Stations similar to us are struggling also.”

Another part of the problem is the amount of work required to clean and sort recycling. For companies to accept recycling, it must be properly sorted and cleaned. Unfortunately, many people dump uncleaned items into improper piles. Sometimes, bottles contain needles and unknown fluids that must be thrown away for the safety of the recycling center employees. Bradford noted that greasy pizza boxes must be thrown away because the grease cannot be cleaned out of the cardboard.

Massengale believes that to increase the amount of materials that can be recycled, the county would need to fund a more thorough cleaning program, creating an additional expense on top of the current employee’s salaries, maintenance of the machinery and the transport truck, and fuel for the truck.

At the county meeting, he reported that the average cost of fuel and employee’s labor is $80 per load, assuming no traffic and not including maintenance on the truck.

Currently, the county accepts aluminum cans, cardboard, paper, and No. 1 and No. 2 plastics. Dade also recycles oil, and residents can pay to have tires recycled.

As explained on the county website, the transfer station is open Tuesday through Saturday from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. Residents (with a Dade county license plate) can drop off up to eight bags of garbage each day for free. The site adds, “All citizens are encouraged to bring unlimited amounts of recyclables.”

Photo by Lydia Berglar – Many loads of garbage are brought to the transfer station each day, sometimes totaling as much as 100 tons a day. “We’ve become a throwaway nation,” said Billy Massengale.

Scales are used to determine the cost of garbage loads beyond the daily eight bags. Mattresses and box springs can also be disposed of with the additional cost of $14 each.

Massengale noted that over the last couple of decades, the amount of waste coming through the transfer station has more than doubled. “In the mid-2000s, we were getting about 22 tons a day. Now, we get more than 50, sometimes even 100 tons in one day. We’ve become a throwaway nation.”

Bradford is currently looking into operations at the transfer station, digging into the numbers, considering all options, and seeing if any improvements can be made to the current system. She noted that she is researching how the floor operates and looking into the computer system that tracks data.

“My thoughts are, if we fix things around the transfer station and charge for some things, we could still have recycling. I feel like we miss people with the scales sometimes. I don’t think it would be a bad idea to charge a dollar per car. Everybody in the county uses the station. That would help level out the cost.”

Massengale said, “We’re one of the few towns still taking recycling. It would save taxpayers money if it all went to the landfill.”

Massengale recommended to the county commission, “If we started charging businesses, because they bring in the majority of the cardboard, we wouldn’t be losing money on the cardboard.” County Executive Ted Rumley noted, “They bring it not only from Dade County, but also from other places.”

The commission said they would complete further research and specifically address the cardboard problem at the April meeting. The broader issue is impacted by global and national issues. It remains to be seen if Dade County will be able to support a recycling program in the future.

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