So what does Publix do with those plastic bags you bring back to recycle?

Readers want to know the fate of bags and foam cartons we stuff into recycle bins in front of stores. And by the way, why can’t we recycle that stuff curbside?
A customer puts her plastic bags inside the green bin outside a St. Petersburg Publix for recycling.
A customer puts her plastic bags inside the green bin outside a St. Petersburg Publix for recycling. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Sept. 17, 2020

We consumers can be a skeptical lot. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Recently, through a company called Hearken that helps newsrooms write about what people want to know, Tampa Bay Times readers voted on the consumer question they most wanted answered.

The latest winner, submitted anonymously by a Times reader and picked by other readers: Where does Publix recycle its plastic bags, foam trays and egg cartons?

Related: Want more of your consumer questions answered, Tampa Bay? Vote now

As in, those grocery bags and foam products we dutifully bring back to stores and stuff into those green recycling bins out front in the hopes that we’re doing some good in the world.

(Or at least some of us do. I tend to be more of a trying-to-remember-to-bring-my-own-reusable-bags kind of person.)

And did I hear the potential for skepticism in that question? Here’s how one customer bluntly put it in a post on Reddit: Does Publix actually send that material to be recycled? Or is it just a feel-good lie to customers?

Those green recycling bins outside a St. Petersburg Publix. Where does it go from there?
Those green recycling bins outside a St. Petersburg Publix. Where does it go from there? [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Publix says indeed they do, and it works like this: When the recycling bins outside your local store get full, the contents are loaded onto trailers and sent to return centers in Lakeland, Orlando, Sarasota, Jacksonville, Boynton, Deerfield and Miami.

There, they are baled with similar materials — plastic with more plastic — and picked up by recyclers. Plastic bags are processed into plastic pellets, which are sold to manufacturers, who use the pellets to make things like composite decking, fencing, and yes, more plastic bags.

The foam can be used in the production of building construction materials and of cleaner-burning fuel cubes for use in power plant operations, Publix says.

Walmart, by the way, offers plastic bag recycling at more than 2,900 of its stores.

“It’s a good thing to take them back to Walmart or Publix, because they will get recycled," says Barbara Heineken, a Tampa recycling consultant with more than 30 years in the recycling business.

She’s used to my questions, like back when I had one about curbside recycling.

All those cans, bottles, plastic jugs, newspapers and boxes I put in the big plastic bin weekly would get dumped into one big truck all mixed together — “single stream recycling,” it’s called.

But how could it possibly get separated for proper recycling? Reddit guy might have asked it this way: Did it get secretly dumped somewhere so we could all feel good about ourselves?

We've got questions about curbside recycling, too. [Times (2013)]
We've got questions about curbside recycling, too. [Times (2013)]

The question landed me at a huge Waste Management facility near Ybor City, watching our throwaways rolling along on more than 5,000 feet of conveyor belt three stories up, sorted by a fascinating combination of vacuums, rollers, magnets and human sorters in hard hats and gloves.

Which brings up another slightly cynical question: Why is it that Publix can recycle plastic and foam, but our bags, egg cartons and styrofoam get the stink-eye from city and county governments when it comes to curbside recycling?

“No plastic bags in the recycling container!” scolds St. Petersburg. “Plastic bags can be recycled at your local grocery store but should NOT be placed in your blue cart,” echoes Hillsborough County.

There’s an answer for that, too.

At the big recycling centers, plastic bags are considered “tanglers,” as are garden hoses, cords and clothing. They can jam up the fast-moving line as it sorts out the water bottles and soda cans we send them. And packing our recyclables in plastic bags for curbside pick-up is apparently especially problematic for gumming up the works, so we’re encouraged to put those recyclables loose in the bin.

As for foam, it’s mostly air, tends to break up and is hard to capture for that kind of recycling, Heineken says.

Related: So does the cook making my burger at a Tampa Bay restaurant have to wear a mask?

Stores such as Walmart and Publix, however, can easily bale plastic with plastic, foam with foam.

If bags or foam aren’t mixed with other recyclables, they can be recycled into new products, Heineken said.

Hey, even the cynical can learn something.

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