The long-term future of the county's recycling program is still up in the air.
SHALIMAR — Okaloosa County Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel is one of the 27%.
“Only 27% of our customers recycle right now,” she said on Monday.
But many of the almost 34,000 residential customers of Waste Management in the county’s overall franchise area who do choose to recycle are very passionate about the practice.
And scores of them have been contacting Ketchel and other commissioners since the mid-September decision by a majority of the board to have recycled items brought to a landfill in Jackson County. There, the items would be disposed of with trash, and many of them reportedly would break down into methane gas to be used for energy.
Most commissioners chose going that route rather than paying higher costs while continuing to send the items to the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority’s recycling facility in Cantonment, and rather than disbanding the county recycling program altogether. Nathan Boyles was the only commissioner who wanted the county to remain under contract with the Authority.
The current agreement with the ECUA ended Monday, and the long-term future of the county’s recycling program remains up in the air.
Ketchel said she cares deeply about the environment but doesn’t favor using money in the county solid waste reserves, or charging customers higher rates, to keep recycling at the ECUA facility.
The Authority’s recently proposed two-year agreement to continue processing the county’s recycled items included an increase of about $350,000 to what the county budgeted for recyclable material processing in fiscal 2020.
Through the third quarter of fiscal 2019, the county paid more than $1 million for curbside collection of recyclable items, more than $175,000 for item handling and hauling and more than $102,000 for item processing.
The projected hike of about $350,000 could be covered with money in the county’s solid waste enterprise fund reserves or by raising residential customers’ rates by $1 per month, county officials said at the Sept. 17 commission meeting.
But the wildly fluctuating average market value of recyclable items could lead to even greater customer rate increases, Ketchel said on Monday.
“It’s a very volatile commodity market,” she said. “The percentage we pay per ton could change overnight. There are a lot of people who live on a fixed income and couldn’t afford a rate increase.”
Before China stopped accepting plastic waste from the United States in 2017, the ECUA was paying the county $60 per ton of recycled items, Ketchel said. More recently, the county was paying the Authority about $37 per ton to process its recyclables.
Tuesday’s commission meeting agenda includes a request to amend the county’s solid waste agreement with Waste Management in order to at least temporarily divert recycled items to the Springhill Landfill.
Last Friday, however, Commission Chairman Kelly Windes shared with the Daily News a notice of an Oct. 10 public workshop at which the commission plans to further discuss the county’s recycling practices.
“As chairman, I take full responsibility for not expanding the discussion on the use of (solid waste) reserves to supplement recycling at our last BCC meeting,” Windes said in the notice. “Let me assure the public that your voices have been heard and we stand ready to explore all options that may preserve recycling in Okaloosa County.”
The reserves currently total about $3.7 million.
“While this number is sizeable, the board is faced with the possibility of a large scale remediation effort at our closed Niceville landfill, which could significantly erode the reserve,” County Administrator John Hofstad said.
Ketchel, for one, doesn’t want to delve into the reserves to benefit the recycling program.
“If we get a major storm, we’ll need that budget to pay for the collection of all the debris that’s put on the curb,” she said.
The county should not, however, “be operating from a position of fear,” said resident Debbie Vaughan, who lives next to Garnier Bayou just north of Ocean City.
“Here in 2019, recycling should be part of everyone’s life,” she said. “We’re too close to water to not do that, and we have a limited land mass.”
Vaughan said recycling is a "no-brainer," even at a potentially higher monthly charge.
"I just don’t think we can continue to be treating the environment the way we’ve been treating it," she said.