We haul our plastics to the curb to be picked up and recycled, but that does not mean every item will get a second life.
Yolanda Dilella feels good about her weekly recycling routine. She packs the blue bin with everything from newspapers to plastic coke bottles.
“I want my children to have a better future and have more land and not have all these landfills that are using up all our space,” Dilella said. “So I think it’s important to reuse things.”
But to Dilella’s surprise, Team 6 Investigators discovered several items in her bin won’t get recycled, including a plastic bottle that once contained pool chemicals.
“Very surprising…but I guess the residue or the elements that were inside would be a problem,” said Dilella.
Dilella is right, home chemical containers for items such as paint, lighter fluid and other flammables cannot be recycled because of the toxic residue. A plastic bag in Dilella’s bin won’t get recycled either.
Debbie Matthews, with the environmental group Sierra Club Florida, says putting plastic bags in recycling bins is a common mistake.
“You’re wasting your time, you’re wasting your energy and you’re thinking you’re doing good, but you’re really not,” Matthews said. “You’re making it harder for everyone.”
The problem is bags get tangled up in recycling machines and shut down entire plants, as do hoses and electrical cords. Folks at Miami-Dade County’s Waste Management Department say up to 30% of what’s collected from homes can’t be recycled.
- Miami-Dade County Residential Recycling Rules and Regulations - serves unincorporated Miaim-Dade along with: Aventura, Cutler Bay, Doral, El Portal, Florida City, Medley, Miami Beach, Miami Gardens, Miami Lakes, Miami Springs, North Bay Village, North Miami Beach, Opa-locka, Palmetto Bay, Pinecrest, South Miami, Sunny Isles Beach, Surfside, Virginia Gardens, and West Miami
- City of Miami Recycling Rules and Regulations
- Broward County Recycling
- Most Broward cities use single-stream recycling, which means all recyclable items are placed together in the recycling bin: Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, Miramar, Pembroke Pines
Residents put just about everything into their recycling bin, and that literally includes the kitchen sink. It leaves recycling centers making many unusual finds.
“Some of the craziest things are--we’ve seen a bowling ball, we’ve seen actually an unexploded grenade come through and those are not only wrong they’re very dangerous for our workers,” said Dawn McCormick with Waste Management Inc. of Florida, the company that collects recyclables for Miami-Dade County.
At recycling plants, items are sorted and prepared for the next step: delivery to a buyer. For instance, soda cans will become new cans and a ton of paper will be sold to China for $100. But not all will plastics will be recycled.
Even though the container has that small recycling triangle on it, it’s actually the tiny resin number inside the triangle that will help determine its fate. The plastics with numbers 1 and 2 are easily sold—for instance water bottles can be turned into completely new products such as t-shirts.
But numbers 3 through 7 are harder to sell and without a buyer they often end up back at a landfill. In fact, some community recycling programs only want homeowners to place plastics in the recycle bin if it has a narrow neck—which are the easily sold plastics such as soda bottles and milk jugs.
Recyclers say when residents send in too many plastics that aren’t part of a community recycling program; it can contaminate an otherwise marketable load of plastic. While recyclers say they’re always looking for new markets for all plastics; they say the real key is using less, especially water bottles.
“Kick the plastic habit. While there is a place for them (water bottles) to go and be recycled there is still just too many of them,” said Patti Hamilton, a spokesperson with Southern Waste Systems in Broward.
Since plastic is made out of petroleum, McCormick says preserving plastic helps our environment in more ways than one.
“Recycling one ton of plastic, for instance, saves 16 barrels of oil,” says McCormick.
And there’s room for South Floridians to do more for the environment. According to Miami-Dade County, South Floridians produce about 10 pounds of waste per person every day —that’s about double the national average. A waste management study in 2010 showed more than half (52%) of what was thrown out had the potential to be recycled.
In Miami-Dade, much of that garbage will end up at a plant, 1.2 million tons each year, burned at the incinerator. And while the energy produced at the waste-to-energy plant will power approximately 30,000 homes, 100,000 tons of ash will remain with a landfill in West Miami-Dade becoming its permanent home.
But there are ways to make sure those troublesome plastics are recycled. Plastic bags will be recycled if you place them in the recycle bin at your grocery store and that includes bread and newspaper bags, dry cleaning sleeves and even the plastic packaging wrap found in many products.
The pharmacy at Publix will also take your prescription bottles. At Whole Foods Market, some stores are recycling plastics with the number five on them which includes containers for items like yogurt, sour cream, butter and paper cup lids.
The bottom line is consumers passionate about recycling have to do a little bit of homework because some community recycling programs want residents to send in all sorts of plastics, while others are more selective.