Hillsborough County's Danny Gallagher practices and preaches recycling

Danny Gallagher’s fourth-grade teacher taught him about climate change, environmentalism and the threats to the world by pollution and waste.

The other 9- and 10-year-olds in the class learned the facts and moved on, but Gallagher was struck by the lesson – and the danger to the planet.

“It was a bit graphic, he says. “I thought this was so imminent. I thought this was going to happen tomorrow, so I thought I needed to do something. I was like, is anyone else going to do something about this?’’

That started him on the path of protecting the earth. “I want to create solutions, so that’s what got me into engineering,’’ he says. He earned his engineering degree at the University of Florida, where he minored in sustainability. Now 27, he has been the recycling coordinator for Hillsborough County since last February. He oversees the recycling of 10 million pounds of material a month.

Gallagher lives the mission himself. He buys his clothes at Goodwill to cut down on the growing problem of discarded clothes from fast-changing fashions. People have only so much room, so they trash the older clothing or worse, try to recycle it. It’s not recyclable because it coils around parts and jams the machinery.

He brings his permanent water bottle to work with him every day. Old T-shirts are turned into dog toys and rags at home. He takes his trash cart out only once or twice a month, relying on a compost pile to consume food waste, such as banana and orange peels, and apple cores. It’s mixed with leaves, grass, tree limbs, clippings and water, and over time it decomposes and becomes rich soil.

“Nature doesn’t know what waste is. That’s a human concept,’’ Gallagher says. “That banana peel still has nitrogen in it, phosphorus in it and nutrients in it, and we throw it in the trash. It sits in the landfill forever or you throw it in the waste energy facility, where it just burns. You lose all that value.’’

He is preaching recycling at a time when many cities are giving up on the effort, including his South Florida hometown, Coconut Creek.

“It’s really because of the cost,” Gallagher says. “It’s much easier to put everything in one truck, go to one place and dump it off into a landfill, where it sits. There’s no process; you just bury it.”

Contamination is probably the biggest issue, he adds. 

“People putting wrong things in the recycling bin,’’ Gallagher says.

Electrical cords, strings of Christmas lights and the worst problem, plastic bags, can, like clothes, jam the machinery. If those items are in the recycling bin, county workers have to throw it away.

Gallagher and others in his department appear before business groups, neighborhood groups, church groups and others to preach the benefits of recycling and what can and can’t go in the recycling bins. Hillsborough County contracts with Waste Connections, a company that sorts the glass, plastic, metal and other materials, bails them and sends the materials to manufacturers around the country.

When Gallagher appears before companies in an effort to get them to recycle, part of the pitch is the savings to them. For many companies, a lot of the waste is packaging, cardboard boxes and paper. Studies have shown that about 70 percent is either fiber or at least recyclable materials, he says. Noting that waste companies charge businesses based on the size of their dumpster and how often they have to collect the garbage, the ones that recycle can reduce the size of their dumpsters and the frequency of trash pickup.

“Now, you’re not only saving money, but you’re also doing the right thing for the environment,’’ Gallagher says.
                         
For more information and guidelines on recycling, please go to Hillsborough County recycling.
 

Read more articles by Philip Morgan.

Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.