Polk County plans to permanently end its curbside recycling program in October 2024. | Polk County

Just weeks after the City of Lakeland inked a new contract with Republic Services to collect residents’ recyclables, Polk County has announced that it will permanently end its recycling program in October 2024.

In a series of videos, County Commissioner Bill Braswell and newly retired Waste and Recycling Director Ana Wood explained that only 60-65% of county residents participate in recycling and a lot of what they put in their bins isn’t actually recyclable – so much of it ends up in the landfill anyway.

The change will affect people who live outside of Lakeland’s city limits and have black and yellow trash bins. It will not affect city residents whose trash bins are green.

“Energy is what’s at stake here,” Braswell said. “We drive 1.3 million miles every year putting 1.2 million pounds of carbon into the atmosphere to pick up our recycling.”

However, beyond environmental considerations, there are economic ones as well. The county has struggled with regular trash collection and declared a local emergency in November as a result of missed collections.

No decrease in rates planned

Collecting and processing recyclable items can be costly. The county will save money by ending the service, but Braswell cautioned that customers will not see a decrease in their bills. In fact, residents of unincorporated areas will likely see an increase in 2024.

“The reality of the world is they haven’t seen any rate increase in seven years, and the world has gotten a whole lot more expensive,” he acknowledged in the second video. In particular, diesel fuel and labor costs have increased.

“We’ve done a lot of things for this next garbage contract … to keep the cost more reasonable,”  he said. “Had we not done some of these things, I don’t know if it’s going to double or triple or what, but it’s going to be much more expensive.”

He said the county will roll out an education campaign soon to explain the change to residents, including a mailer with a QR code. County residents who want to continue recycling will be able to take items to centralized collection points or pay private companies to pick them up at the curb.

Wood said flexible, subscription-based recycling is a new business model that may help the local economy.

“This opportunity will bring small businesses into an industry that is dominated by big players,” Wood said. “By having the subscription base, the residents will be able to select the company and then also customize the items that they would like to participate with in the recycling program.”

Braswell said from a budgetary perspective, dumping everything in the county’s North Central Transfer Station landfill in Auburndale is the most cost-effective option for taxpayers. 

“It gets back to, how much do you want to subsidize this thing?” he explained. “We’ve got 100 to 150 years worth of landfill space here in Polk County. We’re lucky. … That is a good place for it to go because we know where it’s at. It’s not getting into streams.”

Wood added that in the future, it may be possible to mine the landfill to harvest and recover reusable materials, particularly metals which are among the most valuable.

Despite cost, Lakeland continues recycling

Lakeland commissioners acknowledged last month that recycling isn’t a budget-neutral activity. Two years ago, the value of the city’s recyclables on the secondary market completely covered the cost of paying a company to pick it up and sort it. The city even made a profit in some months. However, more recently, the market has been less favorable.

Lakeland Solid Waste and Recycling Manager Ginn said the city pays about $155 per ton to process recyclables. In January, it got back about $85 per ton from the sale of the materials, so the net cost was about $70 per ton.

“We do it because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s profitable. Sometimes it’s profitable. Sometimes it isn’t,” Ginn said last month.

Braswell questions that messaging.

“We’ve been told since Earth Day number one: ‘Recycle, recycle, recycle,’ with no one explaining how that works. It doesn’t work. We just assume because we’ve been told it a million times in our lives,” Braswell said. “A lot of the plastics that people want to recycle, just can’t be recycled.”

He acknowledged that the county’s decision will be controversial. When the county tried to shift to only accepting higher-value materials like aluminum cans and opaque plastics like milk jugs, “we took a beating pretty good,” he said. 

“We’re just asking people, open your mind,” Braswell said. “Once it’s explained to people, once they see what’s at stake, once they see what our idea is – which I think is a better idea – they understand.”

He said the biggest problem is consumer behavior. 

“Early on, I was getting all these emails and phone calls: ‘Hey, I drink 50 bottles of water a week. What am I supposed to do with them?’” he said. “My answer is why are you drinking 50 bottles of bottled water a week? I don’t drink bottled water at all. I got a glass. I got a sink at my house.”

County plans other changes

There are also other changes coming for Polk County trash customers. Starting June 5, big items like furniture and appliances will be collected once a month on a set schedule, instead of county residents having to call for pickup service.

Braswell said under the current system, bulk items sometimes sit at the curb for seven days before they get collected, creating an appearance of blight. With a set day for collection, it will be easier for county code enforcement officials to crack down on dumping.

When the recycling program ends, county residents will also be asked to put yard waste in their black and yellow trash bins.

Currently four different diesel trucks roll through residents’ neighborhoods most weeks picking up trash, recycling, yard waste and bulk items. After the change takes effect, there will only be two trucks – one for trash and one for bulk items like furniture and appliances.

Half as many trucks on the road will help the environment and the county’s bottom line, Braswell said. 

He said the county is also planning to build a power plant next to the landfill to convert gasses produced by the decomposition of trash into energy. 

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Cindy GloverEditor

Cindy Glover moved to Lakeland in 2021 after spending two decades in South Florida. Her career has included journalism, education, digital marketing and public relations. She worked for the Albuquerque Journal and South Florida Sun-Sentinel and spent a year as a community engagement coordinator for the City of Lakeland before joining LkldNow.

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  1. Once again the commissioners of Polk County demonstrate their Neanderthal approach to environmental issues. While other jurisdictions have figured out how to expand recycling, on Earth Day, the Polk County commissioners tell us to throw everything in the garbage can! Unbelievable. This has been decided with zero public input by our elected representatives. The county has presided over huge growth in the county tax base over the past 3 years, yet they are talking about increasing our taxes to pay for reduced waste collection. Time to elect commissioners who believe in science, preserve the environment, do not allow explosive growth without the necessary infrastructure and listen to their constituents.

  2. I live in a 55 + community in the city limits, and every week I am amazed at the organization and efficiency of our wastes being picked up and hauled off. Everything in life should work so well! We should appreciate the decision for the county to be efficient with waste pick up. Those trucks have a huge “carbon footprint” attempting to recycle stuff. Some wise people predicted that but intelligence plays no role in a world gone nuts with “climate change” threats.

  3. Agreed. Twice per week is ideal. Who likes garbage that hangs around for 7 days, and longer on holiday weeks.

    At a minimum, we need an extra trash bin. One trash bin per week cannot handle both the the trash and recycle.

  4. As far as extra trash bins, we all have the Recycling bins. We may as well use them for Trash as a 2nd bin, since we wouldn’t need to separate them any more. I’d rather be able to recycle, but at least we could ‘reuse’ the Recycling bins.

  5. This is sad, in more ways than one. The service shouldn’t be stopped just because it is not profitable or working correctly. Did this decision get made without citizen input? Surely we can come up with ideas to fix this.
    Is there somewhere that folks can take their recycling to themselves?

  6. County needs to go back to the twice a week pick up. If not, there is going to be a lot of overflowing trash cans which means a lot of garbage in the streets.

  7. How on earth can we even consider this a good idea? Does the recycling just disappear? And if the truck spews emissions, instead of reducing the amount of them how bout we reduce the emissions they spew? And let’s not leave out that they are changing the rule for your yard waste so if a branch falls and it’s bigger than 2 inches in diameter you gotta pay to remove it. And don’t forget the leaves in which you must now have a conversation with your trees to not let down four containers worth a week that are 30 lbs or less cuz they ain’t gonna take em. Rant over !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. Why not change to pickup every 2 weeks or once a month? Hire sub contractor to sort recycle. glass, plastic, metal and cardboard only. choose one and make sure collectors a viewing camera of what is being dumped in, then tag containers warning property owners. Kissimmee does this. with rewards for recycling.

  9. Pick Up Recycling every other week. or once a month..metal and cardboard only.

  10. Kissimmee does it and has a camera report to show what you recycled. they even have rewards ,

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