County greener than most in recycling efforts
Published: Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 31, 2012 at 7:10 p.m.
Inside a recycling center at Alachua County's Leveda Brown Environmental Park, plastic crackles and machines whir as people sort recyclables that slide by on conveyer belts.
Monthly recycling numbers for SP Recycling Southeast LLC’s Gainesville facility, courtesy of Alachua County Public Works’ Waste Management:
Old newspaper: 900 tons
Glass: 340 tons
Aluminum cans: 12 tons
Tin food cans: 30 tons
Plastics: 170 tons
Mixed paper: 240 tons
Old cardboard containers: 440 tons
SP Recycling Southeast LLC runs this site, where it sorts various materials — cardboard and newsprint, water bottles and detergent jugs — from the jumble of recyclables carted in from around the county.
These items are packed into bales of recyclable materials the company then sells off, sharing a portion of the revenue with the county, said Charlie Hobson, general manager of the company's Gainesville site.
Bales of metal, plastic and paper recyclables lie around the building's exterior. Though separated by type, an occasional aluminum can can be seen wedged between a hodgepodge of Gatorade bottles and Tide containers. Piles of unsorted recyclables wait to be hauled to the conveyer belts.
This operation is the heart of Alachua County's recycling efforts. The county is exceeding expectations as it works toward achieving a statewide goal of reaching an overall recycling rate of 75 percent by 2020.
In 2010, the Florida Legislature set gradual, biannual goals from 2012 to 2020 for counties to aim for as they raise their recycling rates, according to the county's Strive for 75 website, strivefor75.org. Rate figures are based on the percentage of municipal solid waste generated in the county and diverted for recycling rather than sent to a waste disposal facility.
The first goal was to achieve a 40 percent rate by Dec. 31. Alachua County already had surpassed that benchmark.
It has a 49 percent recycling rate — just one point shy of the state's Dec. 31, 2014, goal of 50 percent, said Sally Palmi, the county's solid waste director.
"Alachua County has always been pretty aggressive in recycling campaigns," she said. "We've been moving forward pretty strongly to meet those goals."
Ron Henricks, administrator of the waste reduction section for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said Alachua County and a few other counties are close to reaching a 50 percent traditional recycling rate.
Alachua County could be the first in the state to hit that level, he said.
A handful of counties have higher general recycling rates because they have waste-to-energy facilities that burn solid waste and thus decrease tonnage. Based on 2010 data, Florida had a traditional statewide recycling rate of about 31.5 percent — but an overall rate of about 43.5 percent when waste energy was included, he said.
Counties with populations less than 100,000 don't have to reach the 75 percent goal because recycling isn't as cost-effective for them. Thirty-four of Florida's 67 counties fall into that category, but they make up only about 5 percent of the state's population and 5 percent of its overall solid waste output, Henricks said.
Henricks said he's certain the state will meet its goal of hitting a 40 percent statewide recycling rate in 2012 — and pretty sure it will meet the 50 percent goal for 2014 as well. After that, the benchmarks are much harder to reach, he said.
The most important thing to focus on if the state wants to reach its 75 percent goal is increasing the recycling rate in the commercial sector, which generates two-thirds of the state's solid waste while one-third comes from the residential sector.
Alachua County hasn't needed to pressure area businesses to meet recycling requirements because they've been proactive overall, Palmi said. Big companies such as Dollar General and Walmart do especially well because they can make money off of recycling commodities. Smaller businesses can manage their waste stream and recycling to cut costs, such as by personally delivering their paper waste to a collection site instead of using curbside services.
Recycling requires community participation from residents, and the county tries to encourage people to toss out less garbage.
Its curbside collection program uses a pay-as-you-throw method where residents' cost of service is based on the amount of garbage they generate, Palmi said. By recycling more, residents can use a smaller garbage container and pay less.
Carol Davis, waste alternatives specialist at the county, said residents shouldn't put their recyclables in a plastic bag because they often are thrown away. With such a high volume of materials, there isn't always time to tear open each bag.
Recycling more also can save the county money.
The more people recycle, the less garbage the county needs to process and haul out to a landfill — saving money for the local government and space at the landfill. The county handles 500 to 700 tons of solid waste a day, Davis said. It transports 40 truckloads of waste to the landfill per day.
The county has upcoming plans to aid its waste reduction efforts. It plans to turn a property next to its transfer station into a resource recovery park where businesses that create goods out of recycled materials could locate.
It also soon will be releasing requests for proposals (RFPs) regarding turning its transfer station into a recovery facility where garbage will be sorted in search of leftover recyclables. This would let the county pull out items people forgot to recycle from its solid waste stream, she said
Additionally, it also expects to release an RFP to evaluate composting technologies, which could help it manage its organic waste.
Patrick Irby, waste alternatives manager at the county, said backyard composting is one way residents can help reduce waste. The county offers free compost bins people can use for such items as kitchen scraps and yard waste.
Irby listed the county's biggest challenge as getting people to buy into its 75 percent recycling campaign. But residents often are receptive to green efforts.
"I'm not envious of the surrounding counties," Irby said. "Alachua County, by far, is the most environmentally conscious community in our area here, and it makes my job much easier."
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