If you’ve ever thrown a greasy pizza box or waxy juice carton in the recycling bin, hoping it’s recyclable, or bundled aluminum cans in a grocery bag and tossed it in your blue cart, you’re not alone.
But you also may have contaminated an entire batch of recyclables and condemned it to the landfill instead of a second life as a new product.
Recycling contamination is a big challenge for waste management companies. Sometimes it’s a result of confusion. Sometimes it stems from “wishcycling” – the act of tossing something in a bin on the vague hope that it might be recyclable.
Fortunately, Lakelanders are doing a fantastic job of separating true recyclables from trash, according to the city’s Solid Waste and Recycling Manager Gene Ginn. He said the rate of contamination in the approximate 7,000 tons of recycled material the city collects from residents and commercial customers every year is about 18 percent, which he called “excellent.”
The national average contamination rate is 25 percent, according to Mary Boyer with Republic Services, the company that processes Lakeland’s recycled material. Boyer said Republic Services works with all of the municipalities in Polk County.
Although she declined to release specific contamination rates for each city, Boyer said Lakeland had the county’s lowest contamination rate and that area rates including Plant City ranged from 18 percent to as high as 72 percent.
Which items should and shouldn’t go into recycling bins
Common things people should not recycle include juice boxes, styrofoam, bubble wrap, plastic bags, lumber, clothing, yard waste. Ginn said all of these things contaminate the recycling.
Recyclable materials should not be put in plastic bags. Plastic bags get tangled around machinery, requiring workers to shut the equipment down and cut them free.
Ginn said glass containers are recyclable, along with water bottle caps, paper and cardboard, metal containers, and plastic containers such as water bottles. The plastic is typically sold to carpet manufacturers and textile mills.
A mailer the Solid Waste department sends out uses the phrase “when in doubt, throw it out.” The mailer also advises residents to call the city at 863-834-8773 to pick up piles of brush, branches, used appliances, and furniture.
Financial implications of ‘wishcycling’
The contamination rate is important because the less contaminated Lakeland’s recycled material is, the less it costs the city to process it, and sometimes the city actually makes money on its recyclables.
Lakeland commissioners voted on March 6 to approve a new, yearlong contract with Republic Services to process residents’ recyclables.
The city agreed to pay a processing fee of $155 per ton for the first six months and $162.75 per ton in the second six months.
However, City Attorney Palmer Davis explained to commissioners the city gets a credit for the amount of material that is actually recyclable and sold to companies on the secondary market to create products.
“We pay them (Republic Services) a set amount per ton. So that’s a fixed cost that we have,” Davis said. “What we pay them will be reduced by whatever we can get from the secondary recycling market.”
“The cleaner the recycling is, the more value it has,” Ginn said in a phone interview.
The recycling market is governed by supply and demand, and prices can fluctuate wildly.
Ginn said the city received $84.12 per ton of recyclables in January 2023. That was was up from $74 per ton in October 2022 but a far cry from the peak value of $201 per ton in September 2021, at which point, the city actually made a profit from its recyclables.
“The recycling market has become significantly less favorable than it used to be for us,” Davis told commissioners. “Under this new agreement, Republic will do the same thing that they’ve been doing. They will accept our recycling materials. They’ll sort them, clean them, and then ultimately market those materials on the secondary recycling market.”
The value of the recyclables is dictated by the Southeast USA Recycling Index pricing for the value of recyclables, Ginn explained.
Ginn said the latest contamination rate came from 2020, when he and a representative from Republic Services sorted through random samples of recycled material they received from the city’s recycling trucks.
“We (took) about 300 pounds of material out of each truck, random sample, and then we sorted through it, dividing it into all the different commodities that they process… plastics, fibers, cardboard, paper, you know, all those different things,” Ginn explained. “So, we (took) samples from every truck, and then we sorted down to the granular piece. So anything that’s not considered acceptable by the processor is considered contamination.”
Ginn recalled Lakeland’s contamination rate hovering between 15-18 percent for the past five years.
City uses high-tech tools to educate residents
The city has several strategies for keeping the contamination rate low. One strategy is a letter sent to residents who fill their recycling bin with trash or things that are not recyclable. The letter advises the resident that things that shouldn’t be recycled were found in their recycling bin and includes examples.
It also informs the resident that “if this type of contamination continues, (they) could be charged a contamination fee, per the city’s Rate Resolution for Solid Waste and Recycling Collection.”
Ginn estimates he sends about 15 to 20 of these letters a week, and has even sent one to the city manager and mayor before. He said residents are warned five times via a letter and are fined $15 on the sixth and seventh violation. After the seventh violation, Ginn said, their recycling cart is taken away. He said that has only happened about a dozen times in the last four years.
The recycling machinery is very sophisticated, according to Ginn. The trucks are outfitted with five cameras and the carts have radio frequency identifier tags in them.
“There is a radio frequency identification reader on the truck. So … when the container is dumped at the house, it … reads the RFID tag in the cart. It also gives GPS coordinates as to where the cart was dumped. And then there’s a button in the cab of the recycling trucks that the driver has an opportunity to say, oh my gosh, look at all that contamination. And they reach up and they push the button in the truck. That’s all they have to do. And it generates a report,” Ginn explained.
“We want to know what’s coming out of people’s containers and going into our truck,” he said, adding the cameras are also used for safety reasons, such as if a truck is involved in an accident.
Ginn believes the sophisticated equipment, enforcement letters, and his annual mailers which educate the community on what should and shouldn’t be recycled, all contribute to Lakeland’s low contamination rate. Ginn said the mailers are in English and Spanish and also include pictures.
According to Ginn, the city services close to 50,000 recycling carts, and about 1,600 recycling dumpsters. If the city receives a low rate for its recyclables on the secondary market, Ginn said it could spend as much as $622,000 this year for recycling. However, if the value rises, the cost will be less.
“It all depends on the month and the current value of the recyclables. We do it because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s profitable. Sometimes it’s profitable. Sometimes it isn’t,” Ginn said in a phone interview.
Davis explained to commissioners that although the city is paying about $622,000 a year for recycling, if Lakeland did away with its recycling program, it would still have to pay Polk County $265,979 to dump the material in the landfill. So the net cost of having a recycling program is about $356,000.
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