'We've Got To Do Better:' Okaloosa Commissioners Address Recycling Woes

Oct 11, 2019

Residents fill the room Thursday night at the Okaloosa County Board of Commissioners Recycling Workshop
Credit Jennie McKeon / WUWF

The Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners met a packed house Thursday night at their recycling workshop with more than 100 constituents ready to talk trash.

Two weeks ago, 34,000 residents in unincorporated Okaloosa County found out their recyclables were being hauled to Waste Management’s landfill instead of being processed at Emerald Coast Utilities Authority recycling facility in Cantonment in Escambia County.

The county’s budget for processing recyclable material through ECUA was $20 per ton, but as the market value of those items decreased, the cost to process them has increased. ECUA recently proposed a new contract to the county charging $41 per ton.

Instead of renewing the contract, on Sept. 17 the board voted 4-1 to send recycled items to the landfill instead of paying ECUA more to process them, which, at $41 per ton, would’ve been an increase of $350,000 per year. The cost could be covered with the county’s solid waste reserves — which is currently $4.1 million — or by increasing residential customers’ rates by $1 per month.

Commissioners have since released joint and individual statements about the issue and have received countless letters from the community. Destin resident Jessica Lerner started a Change.org petition to garner support for the raised rates to keep recycling operations. Currently, 3,776 supporters have signed.

Although recycling has halted in Okaloosa County, residents are still being billed a monthly charge to pay for recycling pick-up. Some commissioners said they believed it would help retain good habits until they could come up with a solution. District 3 Commissioner Nathan Boyles, who cast the lone “nay” vote, called the temporary solution a “sham” in his newsletter.

Many locals believed they were being duped.

“I felt deceived, I felt laughed at,” said one resident who then pointed out the plastic water bottles some commissioners were drinking from.

Addressing the Board, Shalimar resident Dorothee Bennett held up a bag of recyclables and a dollar bill.

“Just let us know what’s going on so I know whether to wash my yogurt containers,” she said. 

Shalimar resident Dorothee Bennett holds up her recycling and a dollar bill at Thursday's meeting.
Credit Jennie McKeon / WUWF

Public Works Director Jason Autrey gave a presentation of the county’s recycling process. One big problem, he said, is education on what does and doesn’t belong in the yellow-top bins.

“Plastic bags is one we commonly see ... you think you’re doing a good job and put all these good recyclables inside a plastic bag and then you’ve now contaminated that portion of the load,” he said.

The county collects about 13,000 tons of recycling materials, but that’s only 7% of its waste.

Okaloosa isn’t the only government body facing this issue. Santa Rosa County has been without recycling services since April when ECUA requested to terminate its contract due to an increase in processing costs. Santa Rosa County signed a new contract in July, but recycling is still delayed until later in the fall, said county spokeswoman Brandi Bates.

“It’s absolutely a worldwide issue,” Autrey said. “The cost increase we were proposed from ECUA is one they’re doing across the board. I got a breakdown of the various pieces ECUA looked at — there are some items they can sell and do OK with, aluminum cans still do fairly well. However, they’re paying people to take items like plastic.”

Megan Betancourt is a local activist and founder of the Coastal Community Cleanup. Since March 2018, the organization has collected 4,000 pounds of debris from beach and highway cleanups. At the lectern, she suggested ramping up efforts to educate the community. The county has budgeted $16,500 for public awareness about waste disposal.

District 2 Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel said she’d like to see a citizens committee established to help develop ways to tackle more long-term solutions for waste disposal.

Seven-year-old Italia Gibson suggested putting magnets or stickers on recycling cans to remind people what items can go inside and offered the $12 in her piggy bank to help foot the bill.

After three hours of public comments, commissioners agreed they heard constituents loud and clear.

Boyles said he believes the Board has viewed recycling “incorrectly.”

“We viewed it as something we would do if it paid us,” he said. “I think what we’ve recognized, that our constituents understand, is that recycling is something you commit to. It’s a service and it’s something you have to pay for.”

At Tuesday’s Board meeting, commissioners are expected to reconsider a new contract and once it’s approved, they’ll deliver it to ECUA in time for its Oct. 22 board meeting.

“We’ve got to do it better,” said Ketchel. “Eventually, we’re going to get there."