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Are you recycling wrong?

Posted at 5:21 PM, Oct 30, 2017
and last updated 2019-07-17 16:40:47-04

LEE COUNTY, Fla. - Think you're a good recycler because you put just about everything you can think of into your recycling bin? Think again!

You may actually be costing yourself - and other Lee county taxpayers - a lot of money! 4 In Your Corner has been checking into exactly how much it costs to recycle "the wrong way." 

To get you the answer, we visited the county's massive recycling plant in the east Lee County community of Buckingham.

"The residents of Lee County are spending about $400,000 annually for disposal of items placed in the recycling carts that should have either gone in the trash or been sold or donated for reuse," says Lee County Solid Waste Coordinator Molly Schweers.

"We get about 300 tons of recycling per day," says Schweers.

"And roughly 48 tons of that is contamination – items that are not accepted curbside," she adds.

You and other Lee county residents could save everybody a lot of money by sticking to the county's simple guidelines of recycling ONLY five types of items: paper, metal, cardboard, glass and plastic containers.

There's even an 18 second You Tube video that breaks it down for you.

When you put non-recyclable items in your cart, it can slow down the machinery and employees at the county's recycling plant. 

"The biggest offenders are plastic bags and plastic film such as the wrap around toilet paper, cases of water, newspaper sleeves, etc," says Schweers who explained to us how those items "gum up the works."

"The biggest challenges come from items we identify as “stringy things” – those items that can wrap around one of the 76 conveying systems used to sort the recyclables," she says.

Those items include garden hoses, electrical cords, strands of lights, sheets, tarps (including plastic pool  covers), pool hoses, and the list goes on and on.

4 In Your Corner saw plenty of all of them on our visit to the plant.

"A pair of jeans wrapped around a sorting screen can shut the whole plant down for 20-40 minutes," says Schweers.

Placing the wrong things in your bin, also creates unnecessary work - and even hazards - for recycling plant employees.

"It would be helpful for people to understand that the items they place in their recycle carts are both mechanically and hand sorted," says Schweers.

"Placing diapers, animal waste, food waste, pool chemicals, needles, etc. all represent a health hazard for the (human) sorters and do not belong with the recycling," she adds.

Schweers says it's important to remember the recycling process isn't quite as automated as you might assume.

"Recyclable material is touched by many people before it’s ready for market," she says.

"Whereas trash is only processed mechanically after it’s collected curbside," she adds.

Schweers says Lee County residents are among some of the best recyclers in the state when it comes to participation rates. 

And she adds paying a little more attention to what's going into the curbside bins will only make a good thing better - and cheaper for you!

"It would be helpful for people to realize that there is a cost associated with making the wrong disposal decision," she says.

"For example, placing a perfectly good bed spread in a curbside recycle cart, where it jams up the system and requires additional disposal, instead of donating it to a local charity for resale, means that a usable item has been collected, transported, sorted, rejected and disposed of instead of remaining as a useful item in the community."

"We call this type of recycling 'wish-cycling.'" she says.

"And it is the most expensive, highest impact, form of disposal," she adds.

During our visit to the plant, we watched as employees grabbed non-recyclable item after non-recyclable item out of the system.

Some shared stories of finding everything from a bag of guns to a dead pig!

So what should you be recycling? Here's the quick and easy list of what's appropriate to put in your bin: 

1) Paper. Junk mail, newsprint, magazines, printing paper, phone books etc. Basically any kind of paper except shredded, waxed, metallic or soiled. NOT hardcover books. Donate those instead.

2) Aluminum or steel (tin) cans. Aluminum foil (not soiled) and disposable aluminum pans are good too. 

3) Cardboard. This means any kind of box that does not have a wax coating (such as those used to hold milk or juice.) Flatten the cardboard to save room in your cart.

4) Plastic containers. Look for the numbers 1-7 within the recycle triangles on the bottom of the container. NO styrofoam or plastic bags.

5) Glass. Green, brown or clear glass bottles and jars.

So what should you do if you're not sure if an item is recyclable?

Schweers says a simple rhyming phrase may be your best guide before you put anything in your bin.

"We always say, 'When it doubt, throw it out.'"

To find out more about how to save your tax dollars by "recycling right" in Lee county, and what happens to your items when you put them in your bin, just head to the county's website.