A lot of us earth mamas and Mother Nature’s sons out here in the country lovingly wash and sort our garbage, drive it to the county recycling center and nudge it into the proper bins with sweet smiles and best wishes for its new life.
But what happens to it after that?
A letter to the editor in last week’s Dade County Sentinel threw the happy new life of our plastic recycling, anyway, into doubt. Patricia Collier wrote that she’d seen transfer station workers gathering plastic bottles from the recycling area and throwing them into garbage bins. Was the county throwing away the plastics she’d gone to such pains to recycle? She’d asked the workers and been told to talk to the county commissioners. She’d talked to the county commissioners and received a lecture about the economics of recycling and the role of China. She was not happy.
So, wondered those of us tree huggers whose first rodeo this ain’t, is the county at it again? Seven years ago, old-timers will recall, the same thing happened with glass. The Dade government, having figured out it was losing money on recycling glass, but not wishing to upset the recycling public, left the glass recycling bins up for the public to use, then quietly and routinely sent the collected glass to the landfill. There was outrage when the deception was discovered, but had it been enough to discourage the commission from carrying on the same ruse with plastics? Was the county fooling the people again?
The Planet put that question to the Dade County Commission, and received
the answer yes
the answer no
and a lecture about the economics of recycling and the role of China.
Though it is neither reassuring nor authoritative, here is what The Planet was told:
First The Planet asked District 4 Commissioner Allan Bradford, whose committee responsibility is the county transfer station, and as such gives the monthly State of the Dump address at county commission meetings that The Planet so faithfully relays to its readers.
Bradford said he’d read the letter to the editor. “I had no idea that was happening,” he said. “I know the lady so I called her and talked to her, not realizing that that was going on.”
Bradford admitted the problem existed but said he was working on it. “People don’t take plastics no more like they used to,” he said. “There’s a place in Florida but can you imagine what it would cost to drive a load of plastics down to Florida?”
Bradford then talked about the glass problem and how much it would cost--$30- to $40,000—to hire someone to separate categories of glass to make it acceptable for recycling. The Planet, again specifying that the subject now was plastic, asked for clarity:
“How long have you been throwing plastic away while we recyclers have been earnestly taking it up there?”
“I don’t know the exact dates on that. It’s been a lot longer than I realized,” said Bradford. He went on, seeming to contend that the practice with the plastics had been started some time ago by a specific employee who had later resumed it when he was again sent back to help at the recycling center; and he repeated that it wasn’t feasible to send a driver to Florida.
The Planet repeated the question: “How long has it been that the transfer station has been throwing away the plastic while keeping the bins there so that we think we’re recycling?”
“I would say probably three to six months,” said Bradford.
But a few minutes later, Dade County Executive Ted Rumley said the county is in fact still recycling plastic, and that what the letter-writer to The Sentinel had seen was recycling center workers routinely cleaning the floor and throwing away plastics deemed unfit for recycling. “She just jumped the gun,” he said.
Some bottles dumped into the recycling bins have needles in them from diabetics injecting themselves with insulin, said the county boss. Other plastic containers are stuffed with garbage. “Some of the bottles had urine in them,” he said. Transfer station workers don’t want to touch other people’s pee bottles any more than other citizens do, and do in fact throw them into the garbage, said Rumley.
But that doesn’t mean the county has discontinued recycling recyclable plastics, he insisted. “We bale plastics every day,” said Rumley. “Billy. Come here a minute.”
Enter Billy Massengale, Dade’s road boss and head of the county physical plant, under whose management the transfer station falls. Asked if Dade still recycles plastics, Massengale pronounced: “Might not for long. China has quit accepting recycling. I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to get rid of it.”
But what about now? Massengale repeated Rumley’s message about not being able to recycle plastic containers filled with trash. “If you’re working down there and you pick up a Coke bottle and see it’s got a needle in it, are you going to stick your finger in there and try to get it out?”
Workers set containers like that aside, he said. “At the end of the day they pick it up, put it in the barrel, throw it in the dump,” said Massengale.
“She [the letter writer] happened to be there when they did that,” added Rumley.
However, said Massengale, repeating Rumley’s message on plastic recycling in general: “We recycle No. 1 and No. 2 plastic, always have and as long as we have a market for it we’ll continue doing it.”
But Allan Bradford said plastics had been thrown away for three to six months, protested The Planet.
“I didn’t say that,” said Bradford, entering the conversation. “We’ve been putting it in that barrel. I didn’t say we’ve been throwing it away. We put it in the barrel. I’m not sure where it goes to from there.”
Clear as mud? The Planet found it so, too.
If you are curious how county officials in deepest rural Georgia came to have so much to say about Sino-American trade relations, a quick Google search will net you a screenful of news stories about how China, which used to be the USA’s top market for recyclables, stopped accepting most of them this year, and is not fixin’ to back down on that in the face of President Trump’s tariff threats. Cities and counties throughout America are having to throw their recyclables into landfills.
And if you are puzzled why county officials would blame the recycling problem on Sino-American trade relations while simultaneously denying the problem exists, or why one county official would admit the problem exists when questioned individually, then deny it a few minutes later in company—well! You’re not alone.
Are the county commissioners recycling their 2011 deception about glass now with the plastics, tossing all categories into the landfill while giving the public a bunch of No. 2 about it?
The Planet cannot say. The above comments were all made on Thursday. On Friday, The Planet went to the transfer station to recycle, and noted a worker taking a large blue piece of plastic from the recycling bin to put it into a trashcan. “Do you no longer recycle plastic?” asked The Planet.
“No. 1 and No. 2 we do,” he said. “This is No. 7.”
Which is enough to keep The Planet recycling plastic, in a sort of ecological version of Paschal’s Wager: If the county does recycle the plastic, putting one’s plastics into the recycling bin helps save the earth; and if the county throws it into the landfill, what harm has the recycler done by trying?
We close with some final words from County Boss Rumley, who says that recycling is alive and well in Dade County: “As big as recycling is throughout the whole United States, Trump or no Trump, I can’t see them jeopardizing that. It was hard enough to get it started 20 or 30 years ago.”
Editor's Note: The Planet figured out how to add this recording of the Bradford interview to this article--but not how to eradicate the price tag. So, for the record: Go ahead and listen! You won't really owe anybody $3.99!