Back in the mists of a time long gone, the concept of recycling the discarded debris of our consumer habits, thus giving them a second and possibly third life, seemed so sensible, so conscience soothing. There was Mom, Flag, Apple Pie and then Recycling, the holy four-fecta of American iconic virtues. We could show the world that Americans were doing their best to help sustain the planet and weren’t the wasteful, polluting profligates depicted by our critics. We were Recyclers and gosh darn proud of that!
To my admittedly misty recollection, the “mists of time” were the early 1990s, when the Florida legislature passed recycling mandates, and I sat in meetings with County and St. Augustine staffers as we planned how to comply with the mandates.
At first, it was so easy. While not all residents of the County and what was then its three cities (Hastings disincorporated itself in 2017) hummed the recycling mantra, enough participated that your local government officials could feel a good faith effort was being made. Back then, many items could be recycled: glass, newspapers, cardboard, aluminum, other types of metals, various types of plastic, and so on. Because there was so robust a market for recyclables, it was almost as if the question could have been what can’t be recycled.
Around 2017-18 that robustness ended when China and other Asia counties, to which the U.S. and many other Western countries had been sending most of their recycled waste, stopped accepting that waste because of contamination: food mixed with the recyclables, cardboard pizza boxes stained with grease, plastic items that were never meant to be recycled. However, by then, many U.S. residents had grown so committed to recycling that stopping a practice that had become enshrined as “good” was nearly unthinkable.
But times change and the unthinkable sometimes needs to be rethought, especially because of the loss foreign markets for recyclables and the pandemic that has created severe labor shortages for cities that provide recycling services and for private companies that pick up recyclables under contract to some cities, such as ours. These shortages have resulted in delays and much citizen dissatisfaction.
At its September 13th meeting, the City Commission decided to cancel the contract the City has had for over 12 years with a private company to pick up recyclables and to stop temporarily the collection of recyclables. This temporary suspension will give the City time to purchase a new solid waste truck, hire the employees to man it and educate the residents about changes, such as what can and cannot be recycled. The City fully intends to resume the recycling collection service, though the date when that will happen has yet to be determined. In the meantime, the City is exploring a possible site for a dumpster at a convenient location in which residents could put the items they want recycled. Or, if residents prefer, they can mix their recyclables with their regular household waste that City crews pick up weekly.
Concerning recycling’s bigger picture: Some states are considering new regulations to reduce solid waste. Maine and Oregon, for example, have passed laws that will go into effect in 2024 and 2025 that will require companies, not cities, counties and private citizens, to be responsible for recycling and disposing of the packaging, such as cardboard cartons and plastic wrap, in which their products are sold. In time, companies may innovate and use less wasteful packaging. California is looking at new rules to change what can be labelled as recyclable and thus force manufacturers to make truly recyclable products.