Flagler Beach, FL – Pressing the buttons, one by one, Flagler Beach Mayor Suzie Johnston officially flipped the switch to activate ‘Big Blue’ for the community last Thursday, just one day before the 52nd anniversary or Earth Day.

As Flagler Beach continues it’s trek to become a more sustainable and environmentally friendly community, elected officials and business leaders are implementing best practices that will get them one step closer to becoming a green community.

Flagler Beach Director of Sanitation Rob Smith shows Mayor Suzie Johnston and City Manager William Whitson how to operate Big Blue, the city’s new glass recycling machine.

“When the recycling project stopped last year, there was a huge outcry from the residents as well as from our own hearts. We all wanted to recycle. We’ve grown up recycling here in Flagler Beach for many years,” said Johnston, active in environmental issues through organizations like the Flagler Beach All-Stars and the Flagler Beach Business Bureau.

“We knew that we needed to find a solution so this was a creative, innovative solution. That’s why we’ve already had, the City of St. Augustine has reached out to us, the City of St. Augustine Beach has reached out to us, other municipalities looking at us to set the example. Every city is having a problem with recyclables,” she said.

Suzie Johnston, Mayor of Flagler Beach cuts the ribbon as City Commissioners Ken Bryan, James Sherman, Debbie Phillips and Jane Mealy watch in excitement.

The ribbon cutting drew not only curious residents from Flagler Beach, but other cities including St. Augustine Beach where the city’s manager Max Royale, joined by the city’s public works director and assistant director, came to find out more about the glass recycling machine and conservation efforts.

“It’s very exciting. Cities are doing it much more than the state is doing it, so it’s good that that the local level people are sort of driving the wagon, so to speak,” said Royale. “We have to look at the costs, the benefits, and maintenance and so forth. We definitely will explore it.”

Flagler Beach Mayor Suzie Johnston and City of St. Augustine Beach City Manager Max Royale.

The project was spearheaded by Rob Smith, the city’s sanitation department director.

On the job just over two years Smith, dove in head first learning the ins and outs of the sanitation industry, while working to maximize every dollar with cost saving measures as costs continued to rise.

“It’s about the town and doing the right thing, and actually seeing it done,” said Smith, said the 20-year resident.

He’s frank about the challenges of the recycling industry but he’s also encouraged by the innovative solutions he’s finding to solve the problems and the support for them.

Rob Smith, Director of Sanitation for the City of Flagler Beach.

“What I tell everybody is I took a lot of heat last year when we started over. We’ve never recycled a thing in our life. Daytona has never, Palm Coast has never, and I’ll tell you why I say that. We’ve only ever put to the curb what somebody said they would take for free that they could sell,” explained Smith, candidly.

“That’s what recycling is about. That’s the truth. Mother Earth is a byproduct of somebody reusing something that we don’t want anymore. That’s just the facts. So you take it a step beyond that and go, ok, I can do something with this, right here, instead of taking a truck that gets two miles a gallon, three miles a gallon, 14 or 15 miles away to dump it, and hope that that person can utilize it,” he said.

Maureen and Casey Ryan attend the ribbon cutting with their new neighbor Mary.

“They’re a business person, they have to do that. There’s no government involved in recycling. It’s all private entities and a lot of people don’t know that. It was a third trash day for us. Nobody’s buying anything. Glass has value but it’s so heavy that at $5 a gallon for diesel fuel you can’t move it. There’s no money to be made on it.”

Smith credits industry experts for educating him on best practices, and runs the sanitation department with a frugal eye.

“I didn’t know anything about this when I started. The company I take my stuff to for the city, in Bunnell, he’s been overly helpful. I didn’t know anything about trash when I started, nothing. I trucked for 27 years, I was an independent trucker. I know trucks, I know logistics. I’ve learned so much in the last two years from him and he’s went out of his way for me to save money, to help me understand how to do things. It’s great, it’s a great community,” shared Smith.

Sanitation Director Rob Smith talks with attendees including former Flagler Beach City Commissioner Rick Belhumeur about the glass recycling machine.

Modest to the core, Smith said it’s really about saving the tax payers money and ensuring the department is delivering the best services through the innovative technology.

“My shareholders are the resident of Flagler Beach, my neighbors,” he said. “I’ve lived here 20 years in this town. I have a problem knowing I’m letting a person on a fixed income who’s lived here for 50 or 60 years wash out a soup can with water to put at the curb for me to pick up in a truck and take it to a landfill.”

“With the glass, that’s 12 tons a week that I don’t have to dump in the landfill. That’s $6-700 in dump fees that I save right there. Let alone that, the fuel over there to dump it and the tire wear and tear. Those tires are $600 apiece and last 3-4,000 miles. I run it like it’s my trucking company. Like my wife’s going to say ‘why did you spend this on this’. You have to,” he said.

Recycling has gone by the wayside in many communities across America, leaving a bad taste in the mouths of environmental advocates like Adam Morley. On hand to see the demonstration, he was encouraged by the results.

“Having owned a private recycling company in the past, I’m excited to see the City of Flagler Beach moving towards an in-house recycling system because it makes sense for the residents/taxpayers,” said Morley, offering his own opinion.

“I’d encourage the city to continue to expand the program and prioritize food waste composting over plastics for the largest environmental benefit and weight reduction to the waste stream.”

As for now for Flagler Beach, it’s one step at a time, and Smith is determined to see it through.

“We’ll get this down pat and working good and then we’ll move on to plastics,” he said.  “Plastics are a mess and it’s a disaster.”


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