Across Tampa Bay, residents regularly roll out their wheeled cans, head to recycling centers and lug government-issued bins to the curb, faithfully doing their small part for the planet.
But are mistakes thwarting well-meaning efforts to recycle?
Across the region, recyclers who don’t follow specific local rules on what does and doesn’t qualify where they live are turning up to 25% of intended recyclables into just plain trash — dooming items to landfills and overburdened waste-to-energy plants instead of giving them new life.
“Contamination is really just anything that doesn’t belong in your recycling bin because it’s garbage,” said Emily LeMay, program coordinator of Pinellas County’s recycling and outreach programs.
It’s not just the bigger things local officials see stuffed in recycling bins that are problematic — bowling balls, pool noodles, pots and pans, TVs and, as one coordinator recalled, a full kitchen sink.
The worst of the worst: plastic bags — a seemingly tidy way to gather cans or bottles to go in the bins — or even a plastic bag full of plastic bags a resident hopes will get recycled. But bags can tangle and damage automated sorting equipment.
“Bagged recycling doesn’t get processed due to safety issues and time available,” said Shelby Lewis, recycling coordinator with the city of Tampa.
“Plastic bags are the bane of everybody’s program,” said St. Petersburg recycling manager Joe Vitale. “Please don’t bag your recycling.”
Some other big nos: garden hoses, cords and clothes hangers.
Then there are items that seem perfectly recyclable — plastic film wrap, aluminum foil, a plastic toy truck. A used peanut butter jar qualifies, but not if there’s still food clinging to it — rinse it, or send it into the regular garbage, advocates say.
And, hey, recycling bins accept glass bottles, so why not a mirror, right?
No. In fact, there’s a term for assuming recycling experts will figure out how to make it work: wishcycling.
“We have a lot of wishcyclers,” said Danny Gallagher, recycling coordinator for Hillsborough County. As for items like bowling balls turning up in the mix?
“I think it just illustrates residents are genuinely confused or genuinely hopeful,” he said.
While people have good intentions, Lewis said, “they may not realize it has the opposite effect and can ruin recycling.”
And what about that familiar recycle triangle printed on the backs of food and drink containers and other packaging?
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For hometown recycling purposes, don’t rely on it, officials say. Under local rules — and the differing abilities of recycling companies your city or county contracts with — that triangle should not be considered an automatic go-ahead.
The triangle isn’t regulated, Lewis said, “so there may be a product saying it’s recyclable even though in your community, and probably many others, it is not.”
Local towns and counties record contamination rates between 10% and 25%. Evidence shows people really do want to recycle: St. Petersburg boasts about 65% monthly participation ― “a pretty strong number,” said Vitale.
A 2019 Hillsborough County survey asked residents about saving money by dropping the service. Overwhelmingly, people wanted to keep recycling, Gallagher said. A fact he likes to cite rarely fails to impress when he’s talking to kids about recycling: It only takes six to eight weeks to recycle a soda can. Also, water bottles can have a new life as carpeting, insulation and clothing.
Another challenge: Local governments across Tampa Bay can have varying rules because of differing contracts. Hillsborough and St. Petersburg residents can screw lids on plastic water bottles for recycling, while Tampa and Pinellas want them left off. Tampa doesn’t want your old pizza boxes, while other communities will take them if the lids are torn off and disposed of and the boxes aren’t greasy.
But for the confused, here’s good news. Generally, rules across the region are both similar and simple.
For St. Petersburg, Tampa and Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, individual rules can be found under the umbrella landing page tampabayrecycles.org. And from Plant City to Pinellas Park, residents can easily Google their town’s specific guidelines.
Generally accepted: rinsed glass bottles and jars, plastic bottles and jugs, metal food and beverage cans, dry and flattened cardboard, paper, nothing with food or liquid residue and nothing smaller than your fist. Officials suggest checking local rules yearly, since recycling contracts can change.
Some local governments also offer search tools — including https://pinellas.gov/where-does-it-go-search-tool — for resources on where to reuse, recycle or dispose of everything from furniture to drinking glasses.
The mantra for good local recycling, advocates say: When in doubt, leave it out.
“That ‘no’ list can make it feel more challenging and overwhelming,” said Lewis. “It can be easier to only focus on what you can recycle rather than everything you cannot.”