In order to address mounting problems after the global recycling crash, one Florida county is looking to take back control of its local recycling system. But first, it will have to end past squabbles.
Broward County commissioners recently approved a memorandum of understanding for an integrated waste plan under a new political subdivision, but it still requires buy-in from cities representing at least half of the county's 2 million residents. Getting enough municipalities onboard by the Sept. 30 deadline could prove difficult. Only a few years ago, cities chose to abandon a similar interlocal agreement and forge waste management contracts on their own.
"We're hoping everyone signs the MOU by September — that gives us a year to determine a lot of the governance structure," Broward County Mayor Beam Furr told Waste Dive. "Some of the smaller cities just don't want to deal with this at all. I think we have to show why it's to their benefit, so we've got some work cut out for us."
Broward County, Florida's second-most populous county, produced the state's second-highest tonnage of municipal waste in 2017.
In 1986, 26 of Broward County's 31 cities banded together to form the Resource Recovery Board. The agreement involved a roughly $1 billion bond to build two waste-to-energy incinerators — one in Pompano Beach and another near Fort Lauderdale.
The incinerator owners paid off the bonds with tipping fees, which haulers passed on to customers. By 2008, cities participating in the RRB were paying more than double compared to the county's non-participating cities to dispose waste. It left some feeling like they'd been stuck with a bad deal.
Despite the cities' considerable investment in the incinerators, Waste Management and subsidiary Wheelabrator Technologies retained ownership of the facilities, which stoked local ire. Wheelabrator is now owned by Macquarie Infrastructure Partners.
Tensions reached their breaking point in 2011, when the RRB pressed the county to renew its contract with Waste Management for $1.5 billion over 10 years. County and city officials balked, calling for the RRB to disband. In 2012, the city of Miramar inked its own disposal deal with local startup Sun Bergeron, effectively sealing the RRB's fate.
"The RRB was plagued with disputes between member municipalities and the county. In addition, the RRB was not the most efficient and accountable system to dispose solid waste in the county," said Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam, who formerly served as a city commissioner, in an email. "The disbanding of the RRB was the best direction to take to set the path and develop a better system, which is being attempted now."
City officials and news media praised the move as a "game changer" ending a decades-old waste monopoly. Sixteen more cities ultimately signed up for services with Sun Bergeron, and the RRB dissolved in 2013. The shake-up, however, had its own unforeseen consequences.
"When the Resource Recovery Board broke apart, everybody thought they could do it on their own. We are finding the end result is not very good," Furr said.
When the RRB and its disposal contract expired, Broward County shifted to a patchwork of different waste agreements, with streams being hauled to different places.
Sun Bergeron transported cities' trash as far as 172 miles to a landfill in central Florida rather than burning it at local WTE facilities. With less material to burn, Wheelabrator shuttered its Pompano Beach incinerator in 2015.
The Florida legislature previously set a statewide goal to recycle 75% of its municipal waste by 2020. By 2013, Broward County was at 60% — largely because the state counts incineration as recycling.
"We were on our way to achieving the 75% recycling rate," Furr said. "That just blew everything out of the water for the last seven years, everyone doing their own thing."
Those changes, coupled with a crash in the global recycling market, tanked Broward County's recycling progress. In October 2018, the county retained a team led by Arcadis Design & Consultancy to study its waste issues.
The consultant found that, as of October 2018, the county's recycling rate had dropped to 34%.
In the meantime, Broward County's recycling situation became murkier amid corporate consolidation. Waste Management acquired Southern Waste Systems, a partner of Sun Bergeron, in 2016 — thus gaining control of recycling streams for the 17 cities who signed up for Sun Bergeron's services. Waste Management has since signaled it would raise processing rates from $50 per ton to as much as $105 per ton.
Bergeron Environmental, the other half-owner of Sun Bergeron, is now fighting Waste Management and its subsidiaries in a contentious lawsuit.
For some elected officials, the best way to clean up this complex mess would be to return to collaboration and revive the RRB. However, they don't want to repeat past mistakes. The MOU directs the county and participating cities to explore the possibility of creating a tax district to help raise revenue for waste management.
"That would allow us to build a recycling center that would complement the burner that's still there and other forms of recycling," said Furr.
While the MOU also notes the potential for a public-private partnership, Furr noted it's important for the county to retain ownership of its facilities this time instead of handing them off to profit-driven businesses. Past complications with the county's incinerators provided a hard lesson.
"Because we didn't own the burners, we didn’t have any say-so in whether (Waste Management) could dismantle them or not — even though the cities had essentially paid for those through tipping fees," Furr said. "We will now own them collectively."
First, the county commission needs to convince enough municipalities to form the district. Fort Lauderdale, the largest city in Broward, did not respond to requests for comment. Mayor Josh Levy of Hollywood, the second-largest city in the county, remains circumspect.
"The concept for a new publicly owned recycling center is in its infancy and will still need to demonstrate its efficacy," Levy wrote in an email. "Meantime though, there is consensus that the limitations of the private sector compel us to continue studying if we could or should build a collective center that all of Broward's jurisdictions could rely on for years to come."
While the city of Miramar was the first to abandon the RRB by contracting with Sun Bergeron, Mayor Messam said he plans to present a resolution to the city commission and ask for their support in exploring the formation of a new district.
"As we continue to monitor the progress the county's and municipalities' effort to establish an authority, which will be either independent or dependent, it is our goal that Broward doesn't become a landfill county," he said.