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23% of what we recycle is wrong; here’s how to do better

The 4 biggest mistakes sending your recycling to a landfill

Wrong Recyclables
Wrong Recyclables

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Northeast Florida residents mistakenly put 1,500 tons of trash in their recycling bins every month. For perspective, that amounts to the weight of 33 passenger planes.

That’s a lot of garbage, which ends up costing all of us money since the city of Jacksonville has to pay to remove some of it from the recycling plant where it’s hauled.

While you may have good intentions when you throw something into your recycling bin at home, you may not realize you are making mistakes about what is recyclable and what is trash.

Jason Graves, Division Manager with Republic Services -- which sorts and processes household recycling material from Duval, St. Johns, Nassau and Clay counties, the beaches and Brunswick homes -- explains the most common mistakes:

Cardboard

Cardboard is recyclable, but not if boxes are still filled with the stuffing that came with your recent online delivery.

Boxes filled with "popcorn", the small styrofoam pieces that protect fragile contents, and plastic wrap are not recyclable. (WJXT)

Graves showed us the problem, spotting a box on the sorting line at the recycling plant that was packed with paper.

“They need to empty their boxes. This paper is recyclable all day long, but not with cardboard. It’s two different products,” he showed us.

He was able to remove the paper and put that in a different line to be recycled and placed the cardboard back into the sorting stream. But he said the machine that sorts household recyclables cannot recognize the difference. Sorters who work alongside the machine have very little time to pull all the mistakes from the sorter and correct them.

Boxes filled with “popcorn,” the small styrofoam pieces that protect fragile contents, and plastic wrap are not recyclable. If they are left inside a cardboard box, all of it has to be thrown away.

Greasy, food-stained containers

Pizza boxes made of cardboard are recyclable, but not if they have grease stains.

“The food product, oil and grease -- all it’s doing is destroying the good cardboard,” explained Jason Graves -- who pulled a pizza box out of the recycling line.

If the cardboard is wet or greasy, companies that buy the recycling material from Republic Services will not accept it. Republic then has no choice but to throw it away.

Pizza boxes made of cardboard are recyclable, but not if they have grease stains. (WJXT)

Graves was able to rip off the part of the box that contained a grease stain and put the rest of the box back in the sorting machine. He asks residents to do the same to avoid contaminating other recyclable items.

The same problem occurs if food is not rinsed out of cans or plastics.

“Imagine a little bit of ketchup in a bottle that goes into a truck that gets compressed. It just oozes out. That food waste gets on those containers or on that paper. It just ruined more than just your household items, but a couple of other houses that did good recycling,” he explained.

When it gets into the sorter at the plant, that small amount of ketchup can end up in a large bail from dozens of homes, ruining all of it. It ends up in the landfill.

Any kind of liquid is also a frequent problem, even if it is just water. (WJXT)

Any kind of liquid is also a frequent problem, even if it is just water. Graves pulled a plastic bottle filled halfway with a brownish colored water from the recycling machine. He said anything that liquid touches would be ruined and has to be thrown away.

A little bit of water from those who rinse food from cans is fine, but anything that can puddle turns perfectly good recycling material into trash.

Masks, sanitizing wipes

These are not sanitary and should not be placed in your household recycling bin. They are considered trash.

The same is the case for wet paper towels or used paper napkins.

Recyclables discarded in plastic

Another common mistake made by residents is when they discard their recyclables inside a plastic bag. That means if you collect your recyclables in a garbage bag, they need to be removed from the bag when you put them in your recycling bin.

“If there was one thing we could remove from our stream, it would be plastic bags -- that’s garbage bags, grocery bags,” explained Graves.

Another common mistake made by residents is when they discard their recyclables inside a plastic bag. (WJXT)

In general, any plastic that is flimsy enough to poke your finger through is not recyclable in your household bin.

“These can be taken to your grocery store,” he explained. “They clog our sorter and cannot be accepted.”

This means ziplock bags, grocery bags and plastic wrap used in shipping boxes to name a few, should not be placed in your recycle bin at home.

Plastic bottle caps

Nothing smaller than a credit card should be placed in your household recycle bin. This means plastic bottle caps should be secured tightly to their bottles or jugs.

Styrofoam

Styrofoam should not be placed in your household recycle bin. This includes egg cartons and the trays placed on meat and packaged at the grocery store.

Clothes, stuffed animals, shoes, plastic toys

None should be placed in your household bin. If they are clean, donate them. But they cannot be accepted by the recycling plant, which is forced to throw them away.

Plastic toys contain small parts, like screws and metal that cannot be recycled.

Metal of any kind

Metal poles/rods, sinks, tool batteries are some of the metal that has been discarded in household bins. These cannot be accepted by Republic Services, which sorts and processes household recyclables.

The poles can damage the sorter used to separate these items and batteries are filled with contaminants. This does not include aluminum cans, which are acceptable.

Bizarre items placed in recycling bins

Believe it or not, some strange items have been placed in household recycling bins; weapons, part of an alligator, a cow’s leg, a pig head and an urn filled with ashes. I am not making this up! None is recyclable.

By the way, Republic Services could not find the owner of the urn and did not want to discard it. Out of respect, it is kept safely in the company’s office.

Republic Services could not find the owner of this urn and did not want to discard it. (WJXT)

Learn more

Recycling cans for Duval County residents are collected every other week. Recycling service is collected every week in St. Johns County. To check the schedule, you can download the “MyJax app” through your Apple or Android store.

To check if something is recyclable or not, click here: https://www.republicservices.com/residents/recycling.

Recycling Demonstration
Recycling Demonstration

About the Author:

Jennifer, who anchors The Morning Shows and is part of the I-TEAM, loves working in her hometown of Jacksonville.