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Capitol recycling buried in inaction

State officials toss their trash, marking a retreat from a program lawmakers mandated in 1988.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 2001


State officials toss their trash, marking a retreat from a program lawmakers mandated in 1988.

TALLAHASSEE -- All over Florida, people are rinsing out bottles and cans and putting them into recycling bins. State law requires every county to recycle.

But at the state Capitol, it's a different story. Most lawmakers, lobbyists and state staffers just throw bottles and cans into the trash. Even though the law requires it, there's no official aluminum recycling program at the Capitol. Informally, janitors and maids collect some aluminum cans and turn them in for money.

And what about paper recycling? A much-ballyhooed program to recycle the mounds of office paper from state buildings has been mediocre at best, a local official says.

Every week, giant loads of paper from state government offices go straight into the Leon County landfill. The 86 state office buildings in Tallahassee are recycling only 100 tons of paper a month -- about half as much as they could be, said Nancy Paul, the recycling coordinator for Leon County.

"There are forests that lay bare because of us," said state Rep. Lindsay Harrington, a Punta Gorda Republican who heads the House Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Committee. "We are not abiding by the laws."

The waning interest in recycling at the Capitol itself mirrors the Legislature's gradual retreat from a recycling program that lawmakers mandated with much fanfare in 1988.

In the years since, Florida communities have embraced recycling. But the Legislature keeps cutting back the local grants to pay for it. Every year, lawmakers raid millions of dollars from recycling trust funds and use the money for other things.

This week, lawmakers proposed to cut recycling grants to counties altogether and set up a new small statewide fund of $3-million to $5-million. Counties would have to compete for the money. By comparison, when the Legislature first started statewide recycling, it handed out $35-million in grants to counties. Each year, the pot got smaller and smaller. This year, the state had just $5.3-million available for county grants.

Lawmakers now want to take the millions that once paid for local recycling programs and use the money for other needs, such as restoring the Everglades and spraying pesticides to control the west Nile virus.

Even some leading Republicans are queasy about it.

"I'm really concerned that we're sending a message here," Republican Sen. Jim King of Jacksonville said at a committee meeting this week. "We were so proud in Jacksonville, we were one of the leading cities in the nation in terms of recycling. I'm concerned we're sending a message of "That was then, this is now.' I'm concerned you'll end up with piles of bottles and cans and plastics, and they'll end up in the same place they were before -- in the landfill."

Proponents of the cuts say that local community recycling programs are thriving, and it's time for the state to pull back.

In big counties such as Hillsborough and Pinellas, the impact won't be that great, local officials say, because county commissions have taken on more of the burden when state money started to dwindle several years ago.

Small counties, though, could be hurt.

"It's a very sad situation to see Florida walk away from its commitment. Small counties just don't have the resources," said former Republican State Sen. George Kirkpatrick of Gainesville, who was one of the chief architects of Florida's 1988 Solid Waste Management Act. "Legislators today have no idea why we started these programs. These people are going to wake up one day and there's going to be trash on the roads and along the rivers, and they are going to say: What happened?"

In 1988, Florida was the second state in the country to set a recycling goal for itself: 30 percent of all solid waste was supposed to be recycled by 1994.

Florida has come close to the goal but hasn't met it. The statewide recycling rate in 1998, the last year the state totaled the figures, stands at about 28 percent, according to a recent Department of Environmental Protection review of the state's recycling programs.

The state set goals for individual counties as well. Florida's 35 biggest counties were supposed to be recycling 30 percent of their waste by 1994. But that goal hasn't been met, either. In 1998, only nine out of those 35 counties had met the goal, the DEP report says. (In the Tampa Bay area, only one county, Citrus, met the 30 percent goal.)

"The fact that many counties did not achieve the goals does not mean the effort was futile," the DEP report says, noting that Florida has more curbside recycling programs than ever before -- 299 statewide.

Overall, Floridians are recycling about 21/2 times more garbage then they were a decade ago.

From a political standpoint, recycling seems more important than ever. Not a single new landfill has been built in Florida since 1994 because of neighborhood opposition, the DEP report says.

Most important, recycling offers Floridians a chance to help the state's environment hands-on.

"The people who are the biggest advocates for recycling are the citizens of Florida -- the kids and moms and dads," said John Schert, executive director of the Center for Solid and Hazardous Waste at the University of Florida. "They want to feel like they aren't just throwing things in a landfill, that someone is going to make a new product out of it."

State Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, is leading the effort to do away with most county recycling grants. He says the state needed to help counties when programs were new, but that counties should take more responsibility now. He says the state has met its recycling goals "in spirit."

"We have done what the Legislature intended," Pruitt said. "Sometimes, you don't meet the exact percentage of the goal."

On Wednesday, the Department of Management Services, the state agency that's supposed to coordinate recycling at state buildings, acknowledged that recycling at the Capitol and other state buildings isn't what it should be. DMS Deputy Secretary Mallory Harrell pledged to beef up the program.

"If we can provide better quality and better quantity of materials, we'll have better recycling," Harrell said. "We're looking at how we can do that."

She said DMS wants to increase its paper recycling and start a viable aluminum recycling program at the Capitol.

There are plenty of aluminum cans to recycle there. Every year, soft drink lobbyists haul in crates of free soda to the Capitol and hand them out to the masses gathered for the legislative session.

Tampa Bay recycling

Here's a look at the recycling rates that local counties reported to the state Department of Environmental Protection in 1998.

Hillsborough -- 28 percent

Pinellas -- 24 percent

Hernando -- 27 percent

Citrus -- 31 percent

Pasco -- 13 percent

Source: DEP

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