Environmental Education, Recycling

The Importance of Clean Recyclables

Image of Clean, Compacted Recycled Plastic | Keep Florida Beautiful Blog
People in Florida have been recycling for a long time. Many of us started out old school. We collected materials in our homes and dutifully drove to the recycling center to lovingly separate and deposit our carefully tied newspaper in the big roll-off; our corrugated cardboard in the other big roll-off; our steel and aluminum cans in each of their bins, #1 plastic bottles and #2 plastic jugs in their bins, and separated our glass bottles as instructed. These materials were then taken to a processing center where they were baled up to be sent off to their respective manufacturing plants and transformed to fresh recycled paper, metal, plastic, and glass. Recycling businesses grew based on the value of these materials.
In 2001, Florida was recycling at a rate of 28 percent which was very close to the 30 percent goal in place at that time. In 2008, the Florida legislature bumped the required recycling rate up to 75 percent with a deadline of achieving that goal by 2020. As a result, many counties and cities stepped up their game in an attempt to capture more of the recycling stream. At first, there were divided bins with paper on one side and plastic on the other. This led to the current practice of “single stream recycling,” where all of the bottles, cans, and paper can be collected in one container and shipped to a materials recycling facility (MRF). At the MRF, people and machines sort and separate the paper, corrugated cardboard, glass, assorted plastics, aluminum, and steel to be baled up and sent off to their respective manufacturing plants. Clean bales of materials are a commodity and MRF operators rely on the income received from manufacturers to run their recycling business.
But there’s a problem here. The convenience of single stream recycling comes at a cost. People’s enthusiasm about recycling leads to excess materials in the recycling bins that don’t belong, and can’t be recycled. Materials such as candy wrappers, chip bags, and wet or greasy food containers get mixed in and contaminate the bales of paper and plastics to a point where manufacturers cannot use them. Even worse, items like plastic grocery bags get tangled up in the sorting machines so the plant has to shut down to get things working again. As a result, MRF operators have to carefully screen each truckload of recyclables for contamination. If a load is contaminated, it goes straight to the landfill and doesn’t get recycled, which means an opportunity to recycle is lost.

Be part of the solution and recycle wisely. Read and follow the instructions provided by your recycler or displayed on recycling bins. When in doubt, stick with the basics and only include items that are clearly recyclable. Visit our recycling page to learn more. Let’s help reach that 75 percent recycling rate by 2020.

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