Gainesville’s ordinance code says that all businesses must recycle, but some don’t even know it exists.


Photo by Sean Doolan.

Two recycling bins stand behind the counter at The Midnight, a bar in downtown Gainesville. Throughout the night, they fill with the evening’s bottles and cans. At closing time, they are emptied into outside receptacles.

This process puts Beverly Webb, owner of The Midnight, in perfect compliance with Gainesville’s mandatory recycling ordinance — something she never knew existed.

The recycling law, established in 1997 to recover as much reusable material as possible, requires the bar to recycle those materials. Outlined in Sec. 27–85 of Gainesville’s municipal code, it states that all businesses are required to recycle waste if 15 percent of it is made up of either paper and cardboard or glasses, plastics and aluminum.

The Fine Print polled 40 businesses to determine what kinds of materials they recycle. We chose to interview a sample group of restaurants, bars, clothing stores and grocery stores.

In a separate survey — with some overlap between businesses polled in each — we interviewed over 30 different businesses (restaurants, bars, clothing stores and grocery stores) in Gainesville to see if they had heard of the mandatory recycling ordinance. Sixty-six percent of employees we spoke to had not.

“No one ever told me that it [recycling] was required, “ Webb said. “Recycling was an option, so I picked it.”

Despite potential warnings and fines for not complying with the ordinance, there is no formal registration with the city to recycle, said Steve Joplin, solid waste manager of Gainesville’s solid waste division. He said businesses must pay a garbage hauler to set up bins and pick up their recyclables.

The only way the city would truly know if a business is not recycling is if a city inspector visits the businesses and observes it, or if a community member calls the division.

Joplin also said four garbage inspectors are responsible for visiting both residences and businesses to ensure they are recycling properly.

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According to the 2010 US Census, there are over 50,000 occupied homes in Gainesville. The US Census’ 2007 survey of business owners lists nearly 11,000 companies. With so few inspectors, Joplin said, a business could go without an inspection for over a year. Some years, however, the solid waste division emphasizes commercial business inspections, and inspectors visit all businesses within one year, he said.

If a business is visited and found to be non-compliant, it is first issued a warning and given 30 days to start recycling. If it doesn’t, the city orders a civil citation of $125, Joplin said. The fines can increase up to $500 for each day a business does not comply, but Joplin said he has never seen that happen.

The ordinance has — shall we say — baby teeth.

In fact, in an email, Joplin wrote that until 2014 there were no penalties available in the mandatory commercial ordinance to impose on non-compliant businesses.

According to today’s ordinance, if the city is suspicious of a business’ non-compliance, it may ask for proof, such as a receipt showing that the business is paying a garbage hauler to collect its recyclables.

But some businesses are higher up than others on the city’s list.

Patrick Irby, the waste alternatives manager of Alachua County, said the businesses whose waste is less than 15 percent recyclable are not as much of a priority for regulators, which is why the ordinance doesn’t include them.

“If you only have so many people you can check up on every year, why not focus on the big producers, you know?” Irby said.

Weecycle, a children and maternity store, is not one of those big producers. Tamra McConnell, a Weecycle employee, said the store doesn’t have trash or recycling pickup. Because of how little trash the store produces, it is not covered by recycling ordinance.

Despite this, all the women who work at the store bring any recyclables or trash home with them.

This was also the case for Eat the 80, a healthy meal delivery company. While it produces more waste, it does not have a formal recycling disposal system; employees take their recyclables home.

“Because we use plastic, we definitely want to make the effort to recycle it,” said Carlee Marhefka, owner of Eat the 80. “It’s not difficult at all.”

Civilization, a co-op restaurant that serves locally sourced ingredients, is another local business that goes above and beyond in its social responsibilities. Ann Murray, a member of the co-op, said the restaurant recycles both tree-based materials and plastic, glass and aluminum. It also composts upwards of 25 gallons of food waste each day. Murray didn’t know about the ordinance; the business recycles and composts by choice.

In the 19 years since the ordinance’s inception, the city has not lowered the 15 percent minimum threshold.

Joplin said 15 percent was a good place to start, but in 2016, it should change.

“At this point we don’t want to continue to be allowing businesses to landfill up to 15 percent of their waste stream that’s recyclable just because it’s below that 15 percent de minimis,” he said.

The state has set a goal of reaching a 75 percent recycling rate by 2020. Joplin said Gainesville might not reach this year’s goal of 60 percent recycling.

That’s tricky to estimate, though.

Garbage pickup for businesses is a free enterprise system, he said, so the city receives recycling estimates from multiple haulers. Allowing businesses to use different recycling systems and companies makes it harder for Gainesville officials to accurately measure how well the city is recycling.

But Irby said expanding recycling regulations might upset local business owners.

“You’ll get some folks going to commissioners and talking about how we’re hurting business and all this good stuff,” he said.

“It’s not really about fining people. We’re not interested in doing that. We just want people to recycle.”