Almost a year ago exactly–on April 7, 2021–Flagler Beach’s garbage trucks stopped picking up all recycling materials except for some carboard and aluminum. Glass, plastics, newspapers and metals were out. It just wasn’t worth it for the city, the cost of recycling having skyrocketed since China stopped absorbing millions of tons of recyclables several years ago.
Four months later, the commission had a change of heart. First, it raised garbage rates 1.17 percent, with another 2 percent rate increase expected next year. Then it added a $2-a-month recycling fee to customers’ bills. Then it agreed to buy a $200,000 glass-crushing machine that will enable residents and businesses again to add glass to their recycling bins starting May 4.
Sanitation Director Rob Smith had proposed buying the machine. City Manager William Whitson backed the proposal and pushed it through the commission.
The glass-crushing machine, nicknamed “Big Blue” by the city, will transform residents’ recycled glass into useable products, according to a city release. The machine pulverizes the recycled glass and creates both glass sand and glass gravel. The products can then be used to fill sandbags, make decorative landscape mulch, apply to drainage needs and other uses.
When the city stopped recycling glass, it didn’t men it stopped collecting it in its garbage trucks. It merely meant that the glass had to be dumped along with other ordinary garbage. Garbage tipping fees at the dump are set by weight. Glass adds considerable weight to the total volume, and therefore tipping fee costs. Last summer during a budget workshop, when commissioners agreed to buy the $200,000, one of the rationales was that by again recycling glass and potentially diverting large amounts of it from the dump, it would lower the city’s total garbage weight and thus lower its tipping fees.
“The addition of the $2 monthly recycle fee will offset the cost of the machine, which was budgeted at $200,000,” a budget memo to commissioners stated last August. “The City should also see a decline in Tipping Fees, since the fees are charged by weight and glass makes up a good portion of total refuse collected.” That doesn’t mean fees will necessarily be lowered again, though they may not rise as steeply.
The rate increase was necessary to fill a budget gap in the sanitation’s budget, which this year is operating at a nearly $400,000 loss–equal the amount of the department’s capital expenditures this year, which include (or were half the result of) the glass-crushing machine. The department has total revenue of $1.4 million against expenses of nearly $1.8 million. Next year the department is expected to have revenue of $1.42 million against expenses of $1.4 million. (See the breakdown here.)
Big-ticket purchases in Flagler Beach typically draw public scrutiny and some public pushback, the way the city’s last two firetruck purchases did. Not so the glass-crushing machine, an expense tucked deep into budget discussions. The release the city issued about the new recycling approach this week couched the new initiative as part of marking Earth Day 2022 (next Friday) and left out the cost of the machine. But city residents tend to be staunchly supportive of recycling initiatives, too.
“We are proud that the City of Flagler Beach runs our own recycling program and that residents’ items are truly recycled,” Flagler Beach Mayor Suzie Johnston was quoted as saying in the release. Palm Coast residents have long had doubts that their recyclables are in fact being recycled. (Waste Pro is responsible for garbage hauling in Palm Coast and unincorporated Flagler County. The company insists that its recycling trucks are, in fact, continuing to take their hauls to recycling facilities.) “We’ll now be able to recycle more than 12 tons of glass a week.” Where those 12 tons–or over 600 tons a year–will end up is not clear: the city can only fill so many sand bags, and it’s an open question whether it could end up on beaches, extracted from sand though glass originally is.
Asked about potential uses, Commissioner Eric Cooley said today: “The machine can make glass mulch and sand. There is a huge market for pulverized glass as well. It can be used to fill holes, sold as glass mulch, put on beach, etc.” Cooley himself is already using pulverized glass in landscaping on his property.
The city is holding a press conference at the city’s sewer plant (2000 Avenue A) on April 21 at 10 a.m. to demonstrate “Big Blue” (no apparent material relation with Deep Blue, IBM’s 1995 computer that lost to Garry Kasparov, 4-2, the following year).
“The addition of Big Blue is a game changer,” William Whitson, the Flagler Beach city manager, said. “This will allow Flagler Beach to positively impact the environment while also creating a product that people can use and enjoy.”
Watch the way it’s down below.