Every two weeks, I do the Blue Bin Shuffle.
This is not some hot new dance craze featured on a viral TikTok video. It’s just part of adulting in the Sunshine State, like making sure you wear your good flip-flops when you go to church.
Every other Monday, I shuffle outside to wheel our blue bin to the alley behind our house. Soon a big truck from St. Petersburg’s curbside recycling program drives up and dumps the bin’s contents — plastic soda bottles, cardboard toilet paper tubes, newspapers, etc. — into the truck. Then it drives to the next bin.
I’m glad my city still runs a curbside (or alley-side) recycling program. Some Florida cities and counties have canceled theirs.
Deltona and Deerfield Beach shut theirs down in 2019 and 2020, Bradenton followed suit last year, and Polk County has announced that in 2024 it too will kick its recycling program to the curb.
“I’m all for the environment, but at the same time we have to be stewards of the money that the residents have given to us,” one Deltona commissioner harrumphed at the Daytona Beach News-Journal in 2019.
The communities that quit recycling blamed different villains — China, for instance, for no longer buying our junk, or their own customers for doing a bad job of separating their cans and bottles. Either way, they claimed they were just being fiscally responsible.
A 2021 Florida Trend story about these quitters quoted a Florida academic — I think her name was Debbie Downer — as saying recycling was a waste of time: “Recycling is not a solution for the future. Period. It never has been.”
But this week a couple of other Florida academics published a paper in the scientific journal “Nature” that argues just the opposite.
All those governments shutting down their recycling programs are forgetting about something important, say Malak Anshassi of Florida Polytechnic University and Tim Townsend of the University of Florida:
You may have noticed that that global phenomenon is causing a few problems in Florida. We’re getting water in the streets even when there’s no storm offshore higher temperatures even at night, more and heavier “rain-bombs” splashing down from above.
Our governor, who prefers talking to flaky billionaires rather than meeting with water-logged Floridians, refuses to do anything to combat climate change. He’s content to hand out hefty contracts to build more pipes, pumps, and seawalls to cope with the effects, rather than deal with the cause.
But here’s something our local governments can do. Keep running that recycling program.
“What is the benefit we get from having the typical curbside recycling program? It helps eliminate greenhouse gas emissions,” Townsend told me.
That makes sense once you realize that the other options for our garbage are burning everything up or burying it in the ground.
Last week’s news that state Sen. Nick DiCeglie’s partners in a Clearwater sanitation company are suing him for allegedly swiping tens of thousands of dollars was a revelation to me. I had no idea trash could produce so much treasure.
As Bugs Bunny might say, “There’s gold in them there hills of garbage!”
So let’s talk trash.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that Florida is a rapidly growing state. Our population is expanding faster than my waistline when my wife serves up shrimp tacos. An estimated 900 to 1,000 people move here every day, usually without any idea what they’ve gotten themselves into.
Many of those newbies like the fact that Florida banned the state income tax in 1924. They don’t wonder how Florida can get along without that and still pay for all the water, sewer, roads, and other facilities. They don’t worry about how we accommodate the needs of the people who keep crowding in like clowns packing a tiny car in a circus parade.
Until some disaster happens, that is.
We run short of clean water, or spill 500,000 gallons of raw sewage, or our highways turn into Gridlock City.
Yet even then, hardly anybody thinks about the role that uncontrolled growth and a lack of funding played in making these disasters happen. They just keep voting for the grinning con men who promise to cut taxes even more.
You can put garbage in the same category as those other potential crises. A growing population produces more garbage that we must dispose of somehow, even though we live on a spit of land surrounded on three sides by water that keeps creeping higher.
Bear in mind that it’s not just our 22 million residents generating garbage. We’ve also got 100 million tourists per year tossing out pizza boxes, potato chip bags, and crumpled Hogwarts brochures.
The bottom line is that we tend to be a wasteful bunch: According to a report from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, in 2020 the amount of garbage produced by Floridians was equivalent to more than two tons per resident.
That’s about twice the national average. Twice! Maybe instead of “the Sunshine State,” we should call ourselves “the Sanitation State.”
The most recent state report I saw, dated 2021, shows that Florida produced 49.8 million tons of trash per year. Of that, 20 million tons got recycled and another 25 million tons wound up in a landfill. (There was no estimate for how much was flung out the car window by litterbugs.)
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there are 75 landfills in which we Floridians bury our garbage. One drawback: burying garbage in landfills requires having the space for it.
“We do wrestle all the time with what is the needed capacity,” Townsend said. “We’re always looking for additional landfill space.”
The other drawback is that, like the cowboys eating beans around the campfire in Blazing Saddles, landfills produce a lot of methane.
How bad is methane for the climate? People, it’s badder than Leroy Brown.
“Methane, which is generated from the breakdown of organic waste, is a potent greenhouse gas, approximately 80 times more effective at warming the planet than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period,” Inside Climate News reported this month.
And Florida landfills are pumping that stuff out the way McDonalds pumps out burgers.
“Three landfills among the nation’s top ten emitters of methane are near Orlando, according to the EPA,” WMFE-FM reported two years ago. “Their collective emissions damage the climate in the near-term as much as all 1.8 million cars and pickup trucks registered in the three counties where the landfills are located.”
So, what if, instead, we just set it on fire?
Make like Jack Kerouac
I keep a running list of things at which Florida is ranked No. 1 in the nation — most honored state park system, most outrageous property insurance premiums, most people charged with taking part in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Here’s a new one:
Florida is home to more solid waste combustion facilities than any other state.
“Solid waste combustion facilities” is a fancy-pants way of saying “incinerators.” You know, just like the fiery furnace that almost burned up Woody and Buzz in Toy Story 3.
There are 10 incinerators in Florida — not many, but more than in any other state. They’re designed to burn garbage and produce electricity, which has prompted some wags to tag these plants as “trash-to-cash.”
Only 8 percent of Florida’s trash — 4 million tons — winds up incinerated, which is not a lot in the grand scheme of things.
Our fine Legislature has done so much to support the fossil fuel industry that it’s almost like they’re rooting for climate change to win. In that same vein, the Legislature has been pushing to build more incinerators (cough cough) and expand the existing ones (cough cough) in spite of questions about the human health impact from the emissions.
“It’s the dirtiest form of energy possible and it’s poisoning communities,” said Dominique Burkhardt, an attorney with the Florida office of Earthjustice, the environmental law organization that filed a 2022 federal complaint about pollutants from Florida incinerators. “Calling it a ‘green energy facility’ is an absolute lie.”
I’d like to mention that census data show that the plants are generally located in predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. However, I’m afraid Gov. Ron “We Must Protect Elon from Being Sued” DeSantis would classify that as Critical Race Theory and cancel this discussion, so forget I brought it up.
Given the health implications, why is the Legislature pushing incinerators? Because across the state, “there’s not a spare 3,000 acres in those communities that you can go put a landfill on,” Joe Kilsheimer of the Florida Waste-to-Energy Coalition said last year.
Think about all the development going on right now. Anybody trying to take some undeveloped land away from the developers to create a new landfill would be told to make like Jack Kerouac and hit the road.
Getting to zero
One of Florida’s waste-to-energy plants is in Pinellas County, the most densely populated county. That’s the one where I live (yeah, I’m part of a dense population, nyuk nyuk)
The plant opened in 1983 and 40 years later it’s still going strong. That’s either good or bad news, depending on how you feel about it showing up on an EPA watchlist of polluters.
Pinellas produces 1.4 million tons of garbage a year, and 90 percent of it goes to the waste-to-energy plant, according to Stephanie Watson of the county’s solid waste department.
Burning all that trash produces 75 megawatts of power per hour for Duke Energy, she said. That’s enough to run the lights, air conditioning, and televisions in 45,000 homes a day.
And yet that’s not enough to get rid of all the garbage.
Even when you burn most of it, there’s still a residue — 250,000 tons of it every year in Pinellas. That all goes to a landfill to be buried, Watson said.
And as with all the other Florida landfills, the hole is filling up.
“The landfill has 78 years of life left,” Watson told me. “Once it’s filled up, there’s no other place to build a new one, so we’ll have to send it out of the county.”
That’s why Pinellas is working toward becoming a “zero-waste” county by 2050, she said. If there’s no waste to bury, then the landfill won’t run out of room and there will be no need to ship garbage elsewhere for an exorbitant price.
ZERO waste? What a concept! Reducing the amount of our garbage makes so much sense. Of course, the Legislature has balked at the idea.
Just this year, Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Not A Chance, sponsored a bill calling for the DEP to come up with a plan to decrease the amount of waste and boost recycling. An identical bill in the House was sponsored by Reps. Joe Casello and Rick Roth, respectively a Democrat and a Republican.
Unfortunately, the Legislature’s top priorities this year involved such important matters as punishing Disney for criticizing the governor and restricting drag shows but not Hooters. Helping the environment ranked near the bottom of the to-do list. As a result, both bills died in committee.
I guess you could say they landed in the circular file.
Do the Blue Bin Challenge!
Our Legislature used to be a big fan of recycling. In 2008, lawmakers passed a bill that required the state to work toward a goal of recycling 75 percent of all municipal waste by 2020.
They set interim goals, too: 40 percent by 2012, 60 percent by 2016, and 70 percent by 2018.
Florida achieved the interim goals for 2012 and 2014, gradually ratcheting up the recycling efforts around the state. But the recycling rate for 2016 fell short, hitting just 56 percent.
Then we slipped, bigtime.
Florida’s statewide recycling rate declined to 52 percent in 2019. We landed at just 50 percent in 2020, well below the goal set 15 years ago.
The big reason for that stumble: In 2018, the biggest buyer of America’s recyclable goods, China, stopped accepting our paper, cardboard, glass, and plastic.
“The move was an effort to halt a deluge of soiled and contaminated materials that was overwhelming Chinese processing facilities,” the Yale School of the Environment reported.
Florida’s recycling programs weren’t intended to make money for municipalities, Townsend said. But local governments had grown accustomed to raking in profits from their curbside operations. The Chinese rejection was a rude awakening and shook up the industry.
“I’ve had people look me in the eye and say recycling pays for itself,” Townsend said. “And I’ve had others look me in the eye and say no, it’s a big drain.”
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. It’s not a major moneymaker anymore but it’s still worth pursuing.
Residents of Florida’s cities and counties should expect to pay a modest amount for their curbside recycling convenience, he said, just as they pay for the garbage trucks that pick up their trash.
Recycling pays a different kind of dividend. By recycling our castoffs, we avoid the need to produce new stuff. That cuts the harvest of raw materials, as well as sparing our atmosphere the plumes of greenhouse gases spewed out by manufacturing plants.
My fellow Floridians, we need to curtail our wasteful ways. We need to stop tossing out two tons of junk per person and instead recycle as much as we can.
How can we make recycling more popular? My suggestion is to recruit some teenagers to produce a TikTok video called the Blue Bin Challenge. We get folks to show off their best dance moves for rolling their recycling bins out by the curb (or alley).
Maybe we can even line up a celebrity to help get the message out. I’d nominate that guy from Mount Dora who captured an alligator in his recycling bin. He then rolled it down to a nearby creek and let the gator go — all while wearing flip-flops. Just another day of adulting in the Sunshine State.
This article originally appeared in florida phoenix