Without curbside pickup and just 30 recycling bins scattered throughout more than 1,200-square miles, Walton County recycled more than 1.5 million pounds of trash in 2013.
"We have crews at the landfill who work four days a week pulling anything that can be recycled and through different vendors we sell metals, plastics, cardboards, etc. for the going rate," said Louis Svehla, public information manager for Walton County. "We've tried a combination of different programs, but this one works well and is cost effective."
Down in the dumps
From household trash to the recycling that is dropped off at the blue bins, Walton County's trash goes through a precise process before it's buried in the landfill.
As the landfill is situated just down the road from the jail in DeFuniak Springs, inmates provide most of the manpower to separate every last item that can be recycled or sold. Last year, the county made $141,112 by selling recyclables.
"It all goes in the general funds," Svehla explained. "The program saves money and landfill space."
The landfill is pretty organized for what is, essentially, a trash pile. A typical crew of four sorts household trash, takes apart electronics for metals — rainy day projects Svhela said — and sorts through the recycling that comes in.
Mark Simmons, equipment operator, oversees the inmate crews. He works from 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and strives to find even more ways to keep the landfill clear.
"My goal is to pull as much stuff as I can so I can keep it from being buried," he said.
It was Simmons' idea to find a proper use for clothing when he started to see a lot of it come in. Now, the landfill keeps a semi-truck trailer on site to be filled with clothes that then get cleaned and sent to disaster areas. He's currently looking for ways to get untreated and treated lumber to chipboard companies as well as composting yard waste.
Working in the landfill, Simmons sees not just waste, but wastefulness. Items such as jewelry, coins and even paper money are common sights, which he keeps locked up in a tackle box.
"I see people's lives thrown away everyday," he said.
Salvageable items are kept to be used in the county — sports equipment is commonly thrown away or dropped off at the landfill. The county even hosted yard sales to sell like new goods that come through the facility. Antiques, furniture and like-new items are kept in a trailer to be saved for sales.
"We've sold an amazing oak or cherry armoire from the 1800s. Sold for $100 like that," Svehla said snapping his fingers.
'Do we need pickup?'
Walton County is different from its neighboring counties in that sanitation is paid for through a half-cent sales tax.
While Svehla admits that curbside recycling pickup would encourage more folks to do their part, it's difficult to create regulations for such a diverse area.
"We have a pretty good population of tourists and transients, and several condos and HOAs already pay a third party for recycling pickup," he explained. "Do we need pickup if we're already recycling?"
Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort’s Homeowners Association piloted a recycling pickup program in late 2011. With more than 4,000 homeowners, only about 500 of the recycling bins were used.
"Five hundred sounds like a lot, but out of 4,000, it really isn't," explained Victoria Klamerus, assistant executive director for Sandestin HOA. "A lot of our residents are not permanent and didn't feel it would be worth it and Waste Management would need a certain percentage of participation to keep the costs low."
Daily, Sandestin employees pick up resident’s trash and bring it to a single location where Waste Management can pick it up in a single swoop.
Residents bring their recyclables to the one and only bin in the resort, which is filled frequently. Some utilize the blue bags, which are recognized by sanitation and brought to the recycling bin.
The blue bags stemmed from a program the county tried before the current system.
"It was intended for sanitation workers to separate the trash and recycling," Svehla said. "But then some people started using them as free trash bags, which defeated the purpose."
The recycling bins placed throughout North and South Walton totaled more than 585 tons of recyclable items in 2013. The county also offers residents the opportunity to drop off at the landfill. For larger items, the county hosts amnesty and community clean up days, to pick up items such as household chemicals, tires, computers, furniture, appliances and more.
When asked on Facebook, many Walton County residents were in favor of curbside recycling pickup, complaining that dragging their bags of recyclables was a burden. But do they know that Walton County does most of the heavy lifting for them?
"I know we have had numerous news stories about what we are doing at the landfill, but if people do not read them or see them, it is hard to get that message out," Svehla said. "Many, I believe, may also be skeptical that we are actually doing what we say we are doing."
As the number of Walton County inhabitants continues to grow, county officials are constantly looking for ways to improve recycling efforts.
"We are doing a lot more than we were three years ago," Svehla said. "The programs continue to evolve. Curbside pickup is not a dead issue, but there is still a long way to go to trying to make it work."
GO GREEN: Walton County recycles many materials including: Plastics No. 1 & No. 2, aluminum cans, metal (all types), newspaper, magazines, telephone books, corrugated cardboard, tires, used oil, and electronics. For a list of recycling bins around the county and to stay updated on Community Clean Up and Amnesty days, visit www.co.walton.fl.us. The next Clean-up Day will be at Legion Park will be April 26th from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.