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A Times Editorial

Recycling benefits outweigh the costs


© St. Petersburg Times
published September 8, 2002

As wasteful as Americans are, recycling should be a gold-plated enterprise. There certainly is no shortage of recyclable material just lying around, from used aluminum cans and plastic containers to cardboard, office paper and, yes, newspapers.

The recycling industry, however, has not quite evolved to that point. There is minimal return on the mountains of items collected regularly, in many cases not enough to cover the costs of processing the stuff.

That puts Florida communities in a quandary: Do they continue to operate sensible, and state-mandated, recycling programs at their full potential, even if the dollars don't add up?

Citrus County is now facing that question. On Sept. 24, county commissioners will consider whether to revise the county's recycling program by dropping some loss leaders and concentrating only on those items that generate even a little income.

The commissioners should not look at this as merely a dollars-and-cents question. It is more than that.

At issue is whether the county should remain the local leader in recycling, encouraging by example businesses and homeowners to do what's best for the environment by recycling as much as possible.

The state mandates that counties recycle, so dropping the program is not an option. To its credit, Citrus County (the government as well as the residents) has long supported recycling.

Several years ago, in an effort to curtail costs, Citrus ended its expensive curbside recycling program and opened a series of dropoff centers around the county. Community groups were encouraged to sponsor the sites, gaining the revenues from the recycled materials in exchange for keeping the centers clean. It's a win-win program as the groups use the funds to enhance life in Citrus County.

The county's 16 dropoff sites now accept glass (clear, brown and green), aluminum cans, steel cans, newspapers and plastics. Phone books are collected seasonally, and the county will take your used tires, propane tanks, yard mulch and used electronic gear at the central landfill.

Under the proposal from the Solid Waste division, the county would turn down glass, steel cans and plastics at the centers. It would also stop recycling white paper from the county offices. Cardboard, for which there is a market, now would be accepted at the dropoff sites.

The items that would be dropped are those that are costing the county money to recycle. Take glass, for example. The market for recycled glass is such that the county would have to pay someone to take it.

Combine the sagging markets with the evaporation of state recycling grants in recent years, and you have a growing financial problem. The director of the Solid Waste division estimates the county could save about $50,000 a year by shuffling the items it now collects.

But what will happen to those empty plastic jugs, those steel cans, those bottles and jars if the county stops taking them for recycling? They'll wind up in the landfill where, in the case of the plastics, they'll remain intact for decades.

Sending tons of recyclable items to the landfill will shorten its life span. Any savings realized by trimming the recycling list will be offset by hastening the day when the county will have to face the expensive problem of a packed landfill.

The landfill is operated as an enterprise fund, meaning that it must support itself and not expect money from the county's general fund. The landfill relies on tipping fees paid by haulers and, until this year, an assessment paid by property owners to make ends meet.

Commissioners recently ended the assessment, but property owners will see only a one-year hiatus. The staff is already warning that when, not if, the annual assessment returns, it will be about $19.

Within that assessment lies a possible solution to the recycling problem.

More than 60,000 homes will pay the assessment (businesses pay a different fee). Tacking on $1, or less, would cover the estimated $50,000 shortfall while allowing the county to continue collecting glass, plastic, steel cans and white paper.

The commissioners, and voters, may balk at that, but balance that $1 against the costs of a new landfill. Also, in time, the recycling markets may rebound and even expand. The county would be shortsighted to cut back on recycling too soon.

The county has an obligation to operate the recycling programs economically, but it has an even larger responsibility. Simply put, recycling is the right thing for communities to do. The county should make every effort to encourage people to be less wasteful and to help citizens recycle as much material as possible.

For the commissioners, this is about dollars -- and sense, too.

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