Alachua County ranks seventh out of the 67 counties in Florida for its strong recycling rate.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection recently bestowed that ranking on the county – one that it earned in part through the efforts of homeowners such as Ken Kepler.
Kepler, who lives in Gainesville, said he recycles because it limits the amount of trash that would otherwise be thrown into a landfill.
“If the material can be reused, then that’s a benefit,” Kepler said.
Kepler, a resident since 1988, said he believes education plays a large role in recyclers’ habits.
“What do I put in my bin? Does that ever change? Is it always the same? How are you letting me know that?” Kepler said.
Many recyclers have these same questions. Due to a lack of education on proper recycling habits, many recyclables are ruined by contamination when mixing with non-reusable materials.
Contamination diminishes their value and sends more waste than necessary to landfills.
Sally Palmi, solid waste director for Alachua County Public Works, said the national trend of selling recyclables has declined.
The market is facing difficulties due to the amount of contamination spoiling reusable products, along with China’s decreased interest in buying American recyclables.
However, Alachua County’s successful recycling rate stands in the top 10 for Florida counties, Palmi said. Florida also has a 49 percent recycling rate in comparison to the nation’s 35 percent, she said.
“Florida has one of the highest recycling goals in the country,” Palmi said. “Our goal is 75 percent, and a lot of other states do not have that same recycling goal.”
Even though the county has not collected as much revenue as planned, it is doing better than America at large, said Jeff Klugh, recycling program coordinator at the Alachua County Public Works Waste Management Division.
“We were projecting $2 million or $3 million in revenue, and we’re going to clear at about $500,000,” Klugh said. “We’re not in the red, but not nearly as much in the black as we thought we would be.”
One reason for the county’s success is its dual stream system for recycling, meaning that waste is separated into two bins, blue and orange, Klugh said. The blue bin is for commingles—plastic, glass, metal and food and beverage cartons—and the orange bin is for fibers—paper, pasteboard, clean cardboard and catalogs.
“You generally get a cleaner recycling product that way,” Klugh said. “It’s a little bit more expensive on the collection end, but we get a better product on the back end.”
In contrast, many communities are using single stream systems, which use one bin because people prefer the convenience.
Since all the waste is combined together, it is harder to sort out non-recyclable material from the mix, and contamination becomes a bigger concern. The commodities created will not be as valuable when sold, Klugh said.
“It’s kind of like when you scramble an egg,” said Charlie Hobson, plant manager of the Materials Recovery Facility at the Leveda Brown Environmental Park in Gainesville, Florida. “You can’t unscramble that egg.”
Due to the diminished quality of the final product, many single stream materials recovery facilities, or “murfs” (MRFs), cannot make a profit and have had to close, Hobson said.
Klugh stressed the importance of educating the community on accurate recycling behaviors to create the most valuable final product possible. If waste is appropriately separated before reaching the facility, the sorting process is expedited and less waste goes to landfills.
“We can make the most money off of the recyclables, which actually reduces our cost for the recycling program and saves everybody money,” Klugh said.
Klugh said one of the best things recyclers can do to reduce the amount of contamination in Alachua County’s curbside pickup is to avoid placing recyclables in plastic bags.
When this happens, there is not enough time to open each individual bag to separate the recyclable waste from the contaminated waste, causing many bags full of reusable materials to end up being sent to landfills.
“It’s sad when somebody makes the effort to separate their garbage and recyclables, but they put it in a bag and it kind of negates that whole process,” Klugh said.
Kepler suggests that information should be given to the public so that people recycle correctly and everyone can benefit.
He also said attempts to recycle are of no use if the recyclables will end up in a landfill.
“It’s certainly a waste of my time to have to do this in the first place,” he said.