Recycling picture a bit sharper in Clewiston

CLEWISTON — A big pile of questions that have built up about recycling and, especially, why people living here aren’t able to do much of it finally have brought a few answers. Requests for information came from citizens and city commissioners alike during 2018.

All five of them, including now former Commissioner Phillip Roland, have asked what’s keeping Clewiston residents from being able to participate in recycling as most other locales seem to be doing, and why no curbside pickup is available. But the discussion has intensified since a 55 percent jump in the city’s solid waste collection charge was proposed this fall, which might have been an issue for some voters Nov. 6. On Election Day, Melanie McGahee was elected to the commission and Mr. Roland lost his seat. Commissioners had previously put off discussing or acting on the staff recommendation until more information could be provided.

Public Works Director Sean Scheffler filled in some pieces of the puzzle during a report to the Clewiston City Commission on Nov. 19 about a session he’d sat in on during a statewide city officials’ convention the previous week, designed to bring everyone up to date on current efforts in Florida.

“I did attend the recycling symposium in Orlando that was sponsored by the (Florida) League of Cities, and though it may not have answered quite all of the questions that I had going into it,” he said, “a lot of information was shared that brought a lot of new light to recycling, the reasoning for it, where we are today and what would be expected as we move forward.”

The state Department of Environmental Protection is the agency overseeing local efforts. One persistent question has been about a supposed Florida “mandate” that counties had to be recycling a certain percentage of their solid waste by 2020 under legislation passed in 2010. Turns out that was a misconception.

“It was merely a goal that had been set,” Mr. Sheffler explained. “In fact, former Senator (Lee) Constantine, who was responsible for writing the bill and getting it through, said he knew at the time that was a goal … not likely to be met, but that the bar had to be set at a high enough rate that people would take it seriously.”

In Florida right now, about 62 percent of solid waste is being recycled, Mr. Sheffler noted, and he said the ex-senator commended the progress but also pointed out that “only two other countries in the world are (recycling more) than we are in the United States.” They are Germany and Sweden, “and they’re only at about 68 percent, so we are behind in the game but not that far off the mark,” which is 75 percent, he said.

As for meeting the goal of the bill’s intent, though, Mr. Sheffler admitted: “Well, no, we’re not hitting that. The intent was to reduce or eliminate material that was going into the landfill that could be recycled or reused. Some of the larger cities, counties and communities have come up with very ingenious ways of getting their recycling numbers up and … out of the line of sight of the DEP that was watching this.”

He cited a few examples: of reclaimed water from wastewater treatment that gets used on golf courses or sports fields, every gallon was counted as “recycled”; road millings used elsewhere would be similarly tallied; “even ash from waste-to-energy plants that was sold to farmers, land-applied and called recycled material (fertilizer), also the solid waste that was going to those facilities was counted as being recycled.”

As a result, DEP officials rethought the situation and decided to “change it from recycling of materials to recycling of shapes. Now they want people to start thinking along the lines of recycling plastic jugs and plastic bottles, aluminum cans and tin cans, newspaper and white paper. They do not want to get the confusion of metal, aluminum and plastic and different categories such as that because they were getting a lot of contamination in the recycle stream, which caused the rejection of a lot of loads.”

That was because China stopped accepting U.S. recycled plastics, and other processors and users of recycled materials were being much more picky about the purity.

Mr. Sheffler said one overall point kept being emphasized at the symposium. “We have to do a better job of educating the public in what we recycle and how,” he related, pointing to the Hispanic segment of Clewiston’s population “that is not getting the information merely because we are not using the right avenue. We don’t have a Spanish-speaking person promoting those things, which is something I feel we should do as quickly as possible.”

Another suggestion was that each community needs a point person dedicated to recycling, “somebody who could monitor and keep up with the data and keep the reports going in place, responsible for training and doing spot inspections throughout the courses, with authority to tag and refuse loads that were plainly contaminated by a curbside inspection, and, if it was a repeat offender, that they make a visit before a magistrate and explain why they can’t comply.”

As for where that leaves Clewiston, Mr. Sheffler said, “We are still required to have a recycling program,” although without the burden of hitting a certain percentage.

And after research by other staff, Mayor Mali Gardner pointed out, it was discovered that “Hendry County is responsible for recycling within the city and out in the entire area.” Finance Director Shari Howell confirmed that, saying, “We have an agreement from 1989, I believe it is, and it is still in place today, so this calls for further discussion between the city and the county. I would say that the city manager would…”

The mayor interrupted to say, “I’d like to have an update on that for next month’s meeting, please.” With City Manager Al Perry on vacation, she asked City Attorney Gary Brandenburg, “Gary, have you reviewed those documents?”

“I have,” he replied. “It is the county responsibility.”

It became unclear during Thanksgiving week, however, from whom that update might come, since City Manager Perry has announced his resignation.

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