Plastic bags in the bin can make recycling process difficult


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Not that long ago, recycling facilities in the United States had a perfect if rather convoluted method of processing the tons upon tons of materials they received. They sent it to China.

For almost 30 years, container ships stuffed with our unwanted paper and plastic headed to China, which at the time was eager for raw materials. The problem was that a large percentage of all the stuff ended up being dumped and eventually washed into China’s rivers. Last year, the Chinese government, in an effort to crack down on pollution, banned the import of these foreign recyclables into their country. After an initial period of shock when piles of unwanted paper and plastics lingered in ports in the United States, the domestic recycling industry took up the gauntlet and began gearing up to do the job at home.

Unfortunately, the major problem they continue to encounter in their efforts to process recyclables is that folks are actually too eager to recycle. There is no question that people have embraced recycling. In some cases, they have embraced it too much.

“Although most people try to recycle right, there is still a contamination rate of close to 28 percent,” said Andrea Bolitho, the recycling coordinator for Brevard County Solid Waste Management Department.

“That means 28 percent of the material sorted at the Material Recovery Facility (MRF) is sent to the landfill due to it being non-program items or program items that are no longer able to be recycled due to poor condition. This could be due to the item being wet or contaminated with food materials.”

Eager-beaver recyclers who recycle everything from plastic straws and plastic wrap to take-out containers and bottle caps add to the cost of processing the materials, to the extent that cities such as Reno, Nevada and Cleveland, Ohio have begun warning residents that they stand to be fined for incorrectly recycling. Other municipalities are charging residents for recycling.

According to Bolitho, approximately 86 percent of residents in unincorporated Brevard County regularly recycle. It is an impressive number, but unfortunately, those 86 percent of residents like to recycle too much, particularly of one thing.

“The biggest problem item the Material Recovery Facility deals with is plastic shopping bags,” added Bolitho.

“Single-use plastic bags get tangled in the machinery, causing jams and damage to the machines.”

Every day, the facility grinds to a halt several times to clean out the countless plastic bags, wraps, ropes, hoses, clothing and other recycling no-nos that are tangling up the system. Not only do they jam up the system, but they also reduce the value of  “profitable recyclables” — aluminum cans and paper — when they are mixed up with it.

There is a place for recycling plastic bags, but it is not in the recycling bin.

“Single-use plastic bags should be recycled at your local grocery store and not in the curbside cart,” explained Bolitho.

Some of the “recyclables” Material Recovery Facility staff commonly must contend with are head scratchers such as adult and children’s used diapers, propane tanks, syringe needles and batteries.

“None of these items should be placed in the recycling cart as they can cause harm to the machines and also put the employees in danger of various health risks,”  Bolitho said.

That’s not all folks. Odd items that cause a huge headache for the Recovery Facility also include guns, bowling balls and dead animals.

To educate people on right and wrong recyclables, the Solid Waste Management Department offers an online “recyclopedia” that lists where specific items can be deposited. For example, antifreeze should be taken to Hazardous Waste Collection Centers in Titusville, Cocoa and Melbourne. Unwanted household electronics should head to either Electronic Recycling Centers in Cocoa and Melbourne or to Goodwill, which has partnered with Dell in a program to reuse and recycle these items.

As for dead critters, you are on your own.