Florida Plans To Move Mountains Of Trash

Recycling works a lot better in theory than in practice. Millions of Americans now dutifully separate tons of paper, plastic, glass, and other trash in their offices and homes. But what to do with all that waste? Even though all 50 states have some sort of measure designed to spur markets for recycled goods, supplies of used materials far outstrip demand.

Now, eager to make recycling work, Florida is set to test a program aimed at fostering the market for recycled trash. To do it, the state intends to become both a supplier of waste and a buyer of products made from recyclables. The nascent program still has lots of details that need hammering out, but it already has won the attention of such corporate giants as Rubbermaid, Waste Management, and Georgia-Pacific. If it works, Florida's program could become a model for programs in other states.

`BOTH SIDES.' The Sunshine State has little choice but to meddle in recycling markets. Even though Florida now recycles 21% of its waste, up from less than 4% in 1988, its booming population means that just as much waste--about 10 million tons a year--still ends up in landfills. The state can't bury its solid waste, since its groundwater levels are too high. Ocean dumping is a no-no. And creating more huge trash mountains, such as the 150-foot "Mount Trashmore" south of Miami, is unacceptable to the state's residents.

Enter the new program. Under it, Florida would contract with waste haulers, handlers, processors, and manufacturers, who would cart away the paper, plastics, motor oil, glass, and other recyclable materials generated by state agencies and facilities. But the key to the program is that the state would then buy back products made from those recyclable materials. "We'll give private industry both sides of the equation, and it can start the entrepreneurial thinking on how to make this profitable," says Lieutenant Governor Buddy MacKay.

But turning a profit in these ventures promises to be dicey. "There is no one who isn't a skeptic," says one waste handler. Critics maintain the program raises antitrust problems and is too complicated to work. "Everyone involved thinks it's a good idea, but economically it's not going to work," says another doubter.

Don't tell that to Robert McKnight, Governor Lawton Chiles's point man on the project. He maintains that the program won't create more bureaucracy or require more funding than Florida's current recycling effort. As for antitrust concerns, companies must follow existing laws. Meanwhile, he says, companies have the opportunity to profit, since the state would create a huge market for recycled goods. "We hope we put in the fundamental economics to make it work," he says. "But this is an entrepreneurial scheme the private sector should drive."

PIONEERS. Some companies are already kicking the (used) tires. Georgia-Pacific Corp. in June launched a pilot project similar to the state's program. Under it, homes and schools in Winter Park, Fla., separate milk and juice cartons from other recyclable materials. Once that's done, Waste Management Inc. hauls, sorts, and bales the stuff, which then is sold to a Ponderosa Fibres of America plant in Augusta, Ga. That company recovers the paper and sells it to Georgia-Pacific, which makes tissues out of it to sell in Florida.

Now, Florida's state government is set to start its first official recycling venture. This August, it will issue details on an initiative to recycle motor oil, car batteries, and antifreeze and will ask for bids from companies. Depending on the level of interest by cities and counties, participants could end up purchasing 1.5 million gallons of recycled motor oil, 615,000 oil filters, 100,000 batteries, and 162,000 gallons of antifreeze a year.

Elgin (Ill.)-based Safety-Kleen Corp., the nation's largest re-refiner, will bid on the deal. Rubbermaid Commercial Products Inc. wants to get in on future plans to recycle plastics: It will use the stuff to make wastebaskets. "This is truly a pioneering effort," says Charles J. Lancelot, director of Rubbermaid's materials and process technology. "It has as good a chance of succeeding as any program I've seen."

Other states are watching closely. Jonathan Burgiel, director of materials recovery in the Orlando office of R. W. Beck & Associates, a leading recycling consultant, says he's getting dozens of calls from state and local governments that want more information on Florida's program. "I can see this working here and taking it to other states," he says. If so, Florida's brainstorm, like its trash, could be recycled.

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