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Will it be back to the future to solve Broward’s trash and recycling crisis?

A drone photo showing trucks dump trash atop Monarch Hill landfill
Waste Management’s Monarch Hill landfill

UPDATE: Tuesday, June 11 — The County Commission voted 9-0 to approve the MOU.

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org

Faced with a monopolistic trash disposal system and the decline of recycling, Broward County is about to have a back-to-the-future moment.

Citing “an urgent need,” County Commissioner Beam Furr will ask his colleagues Tuesday to approve a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to establish a “regional solid waste and recyclables management system” with Broward’s municipalities.

“Through the MOU, the county seeks to partner with the county municipalities that are willing to work together toward establishing an integrated and comprehensive regional solid waste and recyclables management system… In order to be effective and enduring, such system must be a collaborative venture based on certain principles and commitments,” says an agenda item describing the proposal.

To become effective, both the county and cities collectively representing at least 50 percent of Broward’s total population of about 2 million would have to approve it by Oct. 1.

The proposal would effectively resurrect the idea of the old Resource Recovery Board, which set countywide garbage policy until it was disbanded amid controversy in 2013. The county and 26 of 31 municipalities participated in the RRB.

“We had an RRB for many years. It had strengths and weaknesses and people wanted to try to do without it, but it turns out that didn’t work out too well,” said Furr. “We know what those strengths and weaknesses were and we are going to recreate it in a better image, with more collective ownership, collective responsibility.”

A new taxing district?

How the new trash and recycling system would be governed is to be determined, possibly as an independent taxing district under “local control,” says the nine-page MOU. Furr described the proposed new trash management system as a “public utility” whose main purpose would be “to provide a service we don’t have,” recycling.

“We know recycling is not profitable, but that does not mean it isn’t the right thing to do. We can do that as government. We are not seeing the private sector wanting to do that.”

Broward Commissioner Beam Furr
Broward Commissioner Beam Furr

Competitor Sun Bergeron, which in 2013 broke Waste Management’s decades-old monopoly on the county’s solid waste disposal business, had wanted the job. But Broward’s biggest recycler was effectively put out of business by Waste Management’s $525 million acquisition of the assets and operations of Southern Waste Systems, including Sun Recycling, a half-owner of Sun Bergeron. (Sun is now known as LGL Recycling.)

The move gave Waste Management, owner of the huge Monarch Hill landfill in Coconut Creek, control of the recycling waste stream. The result: significantly higher trash and recycling costs for local governments when their contracts with Sun Bergeron were up for renewal in July 2018.

Today, Bergeron Environmental is suing Waste Management, LGL Recycling and four LGL executives seeking tens of millions of dollars in damages. Bergeron Environmental and Recycling, owned by Davie developer Ron Bergeron, contends that Waste Management misled state and federal regulators to win approval for its takeover of SWS as part of a conspiracy to steal its customers and ruin its business. LGL is accused of breach of contract and conspiracy for allegedly selling out to Waste Management without informing Ron Bergeron. The lawsuit labeled the sale “a silent act of betrayal.”

Waste Management and the other defendants have denied wrongdoing in a case that has often been shrouded in secrecy because Waste Management has broadly marked many of its documents confidential.

Trash and a recycling goal

Florida’s goal is to recycle 75 percent of all trash by 2020. In 2012, Broward was at 60 percent. But by 2017, the latest year for which numbers are available, recycling had fallen to 33 percent. That includes trash sent to South Broward’s waste-to-energy plant. Instead, more trash is being sent to the Monarch Hill landfill.

 The proposed regional government system calls for the county to “achieve or approach” the state’s 75 percent goal by 2025.

The MOU includes a number of “principles and commitments” the county and cities must agree to. That includes pledging to provide their solid waste flows for up to 30 years “in order to finance the property and construction that will be needed to create and develop the regional solid waste management system.” Likewise, they would agree to set landfill tipping fees and agree that “robust recycling programs are necessary even if the then-current condition of the recycling market imposes additional short-term costs.’’

The latter is a nod to the worldwide market collapse for recycled materials triggered by China’s 2017 decision to no longer recycle much of the world’s trash.

Still, it’s unclear how Broward might fix its solid waste disposal problems while turning around its recycling performance to obtain the 75 percent goal. The MOU refers briefly and vaguely to the need for a “public/private partnership,” apparently with trash kingpin Waste Management.

“All available options regarding programs and required assets should be identified and analyzed, including potentially contracting with private entities under terms that would protect the long-term interests of the county and the participating municipalities,” the MOU says.

But protecting the county’s long-term interests in any such deal will be difficult. Waste Management owns most of the facilities and contracts once held by Sun Bergeron. It controls the solid waste flow in much of Broward. And it owns the Monarch Hill landfill, so it can charge cities what it wants to dump there.

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