Are you sure you can recycle that?

The biggest mistakes many make when throwing away plastics, cardboard

By Jennifer Waugh - The Morning Show anchor, I-Team reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Earth Day reminds us of the importance of taking care of our planet. 

Many people recycle to reduce the amount of harmful gas released from the trash that ends up in a landfill. 

But a lot of the items people put in their recycling bins can't actually be recycled in our area -- and many don't realize they've got it wrong.

A recent trip to an area recycling plant revealed the biggest mistakes many would-be recyclers are making.

During a tour of the plant where all recyclables from Duval County and the beaches are sorted, Jason Graves, division manager of Republic Services in Jacksonville, said the No. 1 residential recycling mistake is grocery bags. Anything made of flexible plastic, like grocery bags, Target bags or Walmart bags, should not be added to a home recycling bin, Graves said.

“You can take them to Target, Publix or any of the big stores. They have collection boxes, but we cannot take them in your residential stream,” he said. “Any plastic you can poke your finger through is not recyclable here.”  

He said that's because the bags get caught in the machines at the facility and can cause extensive damage.  

Along with grocery bags, some of the most common plastics that are not recyclable are:

  • Garbage bags
  • Bubble wrap
  • Pet food bags
  • Shrink wrap, like what’s used around cases of water

Here are some other recycling tips from Republic Services, which also contracts with parts of St. Johns, Nassau and Clay counties. 


Graves said Styrofoam is another misconception, because it's not accepted in any form at the Republic Services plant.

Even so -- “we get a lot of egg cartons,” Graves said.  

WATCH: What can you recycle?

Graves said egg cartons and the Styrofoam used as a bottom plate on meat purchased from a store can be recycled at a grocery store, but they are considered contaminants at the recycling plant and must be pulled from the plant’s stream and thrown away.

Republic Services uses a gigantic machine made of several conveyor belts that sorts the recyclables at the Northside plant. Dozens of workers also pull the contaminants from the stream of items.   

They have to be sorted out because Republic Services contracts with domestic and international carriers who buy the recycled goods and repurpose them into other reusable items. If there are too many contaminants in a single bale of the material, the entire bale has to be thrown away. 


Another common mistake is when cardboard boxes are thrown in residential recycling bins with the plastic bubble wrap still inside. Plastic envelopes, like ones that come in the mail, are also not able to be recycled at the plant. 

Graves said the plant receives and processes from 325 to 350 tons of disposables a day. But 20% of it cannot be recycled and has to be sent to a landfill.  

WATCH: Republic Services experts answer your questions on The Morning Show

Cardboard is recyclable as long as it does not have any food or grease, like from pizza, that has contaminated it. 

“If there is food or grease on the bottom, I rip off the bottom and throw that in the garbage, but you can recycle the top,” Graves explained.

Liquid contaminants

Holding a half-full sports drink bottle, Graves said people might not realize the damage a small amount of liquid can do.

“If anything gets wet from a half-full water bottle or other liquid, it ruins all the clean paper in the truck,” Graves said.

He said bottles with liquid should be left out of the recycling bin, even with the top still on the bottle.

He said if the bottle gets crushed or the top comes loose, everything that the spilled liquid hits has to be thrown away. 

All bottles should be emptied and dried as much as possible before being tossed in the bin.

Plastic tops can remain on bottles as long as they are screwed on tight. 

“We cannot recycle anything smaller than a credit card,” he said.  

Another option is to throw the plastic top in the garbage and just recycle the bottle.

Still have questions about what can be recycled in Northeast Florida by Republic Services? Check out this checklist:

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