Polk County’s long, complicated relationship with recycling is scheduled to end when the new garbage contracts take effect on Oct. 1., 2024.
That was the consensus at the end of a lengthy Nov. 1 work session during which Solid Waste Director Ana Wood Rogers outlined four possible future scenarios for the future of residential recycling.
Polk County did not begin offering curbside recycling until 1999. Before then the county grudgingly opened a network of dropoff locations for glass, aluminum and steel cans and paper, though the sites often attracted illegal dumping.
The initial curbside allowed separation of materials to reduce contamination, but that ended in 2017 with the coming of recycling carts and the end of glass recycling.
Only about half of the county’s 155,000 customers participate, according to county officials.
Commissioners were quick to reject the current program’s continuation because it requires a multi-million-dollar annual subsidy to cover processing costs for the estimated 24,000 tons of recyclables collected annual in incorporated Polk County.
This decision does not affect city recycling programs, which city officials who still maintain the programs have agreed to subsidize.
Rogers said two main factors contribute to the problems with the current program.
One is market uncertainty that affects the prices Polk receives for what few materials it still accepts.
The other is the recurring problem with cart contamination, which involves residents placing items that are no longer accepted or were never accepted in their carts. This often causes entire loads end up in the landfill instead of the recycling processing center.
Although Polk officials have been aware of the contamination problem for years, they’ve never launched a serious public education program to address it.
Disposal of various grades of plastic containers are one of the main contamination problems. This is an outgrowth of decades of propaganda and greenwashing by the petroleum and chemical industries to persuade the public these items were recyclable when they never were.
The result of these fraudulent recycling campaigns was the topic of a recent report released by Greenpeace, which concluded that not only is plastic recycling a myth, it is an environmental hazard because it generates microplastics, which can get into the food chain, and releases toxic materials into the environment.
The solution, according to the Greenpeace report, is to switch to systems that allow reuse and refilling of containers.
However, that approach, which harks back to the days of universal soft drink and milk bottle deposits, typically runs into opposition from retailers in this country.
Another option was for Polk County to suspend residential recycling for a couple of years while the county spends an estimated $12 million to upgrade the current processing center to end the county’s reliance on private vendors.
What commissioners settled on what a proposal end recycling and let any residents who want to recycle to contract with an as-yet-non-existent private recycling company. This was how regular residential garbage collection was handled before 1989 in unincorporated areas of the county.
Commissioners agreed that some sort of public-education campaign will be necessary to inform the public about the changes, but rejected the idea of holding a public forum to get input on the changes.