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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
Got more questions about recycling? Go to tampabayrecycles.org.
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Want more answers to your recycling questions? Go to tampabayrecycles.org.