Every Monday, a line of old vans like Oswaldo’s, Marcelino’s and Micaela’s, patiently wait their turn to enter the Gorgy Recycling Company, one of 10 private cardboard recycling sites in Miami-Dade County. Last June, the cashier there paid $120 per ton.
“Raw materials go up and down, so we can see different prices all the time,” said Victor Storelli, a solid waste expert whose family has been in the business since 1912.
Paper mills set their own rates. Some pay $100 per ton, others pay no more than $70. Pricing also changes depending on the region. It’s higher on the East Coast than on the West Coast. In these places, loose cardboard is compacted into bales, because recycling sites can pay 30% more for cardboard in bales compared to loose cardboard. That is where the profit is made.
“This is because baled cardboard takes up less space and is ready to be processed by the recycling machine,” explains Simone Nulli Rinalducci, a British aerospace engineer who created Sustainability Success, a website that teaches companies about sustainability.
The process is simple: The cardboard is put into a hydraulic press that crushes the material. Once compacted, it is manually tied. The final bale saves space and is ready for recycling.
But there’s nothing efficient about the way these cardboard collectors operate, and what it takes for them to collect hundreds of pounds of old boxes a day, sweating in the unrelenting Florida heat as they strain their hands and arms to tear apart each cardboard. Their reality has been ignored and even downplayed for years by Miami-Dade residents and officials.
Cardboard collectors receive no welfare benefits, bonuses or overtime pay, and a single work day can yield, with luck, the equivalent of eight hours of minimum wage pay in Florida. That’s about $90. If at the end of their day they have not made that much profit, they often go in search of additional cardboard boxes or find other work.
The average annual wage for 57,000 refuse collectors nationwide was estimated to be $39,590 in 2019, $10,000 higher than it had been the decade before. These wages always depend on their immigration status, and on their state of residence. Miami-Dade cardboard collectors tend to make less than the national average.
“If I make the ton, I can make about a $100. It will depend on the market price that day. Sometimes the ton is worth $60, or $30,” Marcelino says. “If the price is low, I keep the truck (loaded with cardboard) until the price goes up. I’m not going to give my work away to the compactors.”
It all comes down to weight. Cardboard collectors enter the paper mills on their trucks or trailers and pass through a certified scale that weighs the vehicle. Next, they unload and go back to the scale. This tells them the weight of their haul of cardboard.
“When you load your trunk, you don’t know for sure if you have 1,000 pounds or 4,000 pounds,” Storelli says. “Then you go to the scale and it’s 6,000 pounds, but they’ll only pay you for about 4,000, because the paper mills don’t know if the cardboard is wet — which increases its weight — or whether the load includes other things meant to fool the scale.”
Managers at the two largest recycling plants in Miami-Dade, including Miami Waste Paper, were asked to clarify this process but declined to answer questions.
Ignoring The Laws
Two strongly-built women queued outside the Gorgy Recycling Company on a Tuesday last July, waiting their turn without looking up from their cell phones. The Nicaraguan-born sisters have been driving around the county in search of old cardboard to recycle for the past 10 years.
“The hardest thing is the sun, the heat that burns you,” said one of the women. “That’s why I cover myself entirely with long shirts and drink plenty of water. That’s the secret.”
“Today the truck is pretty full, we haven’t unloaded since Friday,” her sister added.
According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, residents and tourists produced more than two tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) per capita in 2020. This is much higher than the national average, which is nearly a ton per person per year. In addition, Florida’s recycling efforts are not easily comparable to those of other states; the state uses no standard methodology to meet its recycling goals, according to the state agency.
Another complicating issue is that laws are not really enforced.
The Code of Ordinances of 1992 of Miami-Dade County states that business owners are responsible for managing a recycling program, using the services of a licensed hauler or private recycler. Homes and residential neighborhoods have different rules. This is why cardboard collectors refrain from going into these areas, lest they face fines of several hundred dollars.
Stores and businesses can collect their recyclable materials and take them to a recycling facility for sale and processing. Businesses who fail to do so are subject to fines that can range between $300 and $950, depending on the square footage of their business. Penalties may be enforced on a daily basis until compliance. However, very few local businesses abide by the rules. Instead, they rely on the cardboard collectors, whom they don’t have to pay.
“I prefer to give away the cardboard to those who need it. I’m providing them with a job. It’s more beneficial. Everyone wins,” says Bryan Chacón, manager of a Latin food restaurant north of Miami, where the owners stopped paying $400 a month for a cardboard recycling bin.
The stores and businesses in this huge and wealthy county, no matter their size or what they sell, have long benefited from lax enforcement.
Business owners would have to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars a year to properly dispose of the huge surplus of used cardboard and paper. Therefore, “giving away” their scrap cardboard saves them money.
For years, the county’s Department of Solid Waste Management officials have tried to get informal cardboard collectors to observe the recycling code. They have failed.
“This is not a problem of today; it’s been going on for quite a while,” admitted Luis Vargas, chief of the Code Enforcement Division at Miami-Dade Department of Solid Waste Management.
The code includes rules for land use, duties and responsibilities of the legislature, procedures for construction, and solid waste management.
“As written in the County Code right now, there are two key things,” Vargas confessed. “First, businesses like McDonald’s, Dollar Tree and others, must have a recycling program. We are talking about some 70,000 businesses that must be compliant, an extremely difficult task given our scarce staff.”
“Then there are the people who are collecting that cardboard. The code also requires that anyone collecting, not just recycling materials, but waste in general, needs a permit from our office to be able to work legally.”
According to Vargas, “if the cardboard collectors are taking cardboard from business containers on the street, without county permission,” then they can be fined.
To obtain permits, cardboard collectors must pay an annual fee in addition to taking out car civil liability insurance ranging from $300,000 to $1 million. For most of them, these requirements are simply impossible to meet because they are undocumented and can’t afford the high cost.