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What actually happens to your recycling? We toured a Tampa Bay plant to find out.

Here’s what you should recycle and where it goes after you drag it to the curb.
Waste Management [WASTE MANAGEMENT | ]
"Florida Wonders" is a new Tampa Bay Times series where readers can ask questions and we will answer them. Logo design by Lisa Merklin [LOGO DESIGN BY LISA MERKLIN | Logo design by Lisa Merklin]

Click here to read this story in Spanish.

Welcome to Florida Wonders, a series where readers submit their questions about the Tampa Bay area and Times journalists find answers.

Three readers wrote in wanting to know more about recycling. What happens to the plastic bottles and aluminum cans you put in bins left at the curb? And what about the foam egg trays and plastic bags you leave at those bins at Publix? Is everything just going to landfills anyway? And ultimately, is it even worth it to try recycling?

Have something you’ve been wondering about the Tampa Bay area or Florida? Ask Florida Wonders.

The last question is one that the entire recycling world has pondered ever since China rolled out its National Sword policy in 2017. Up until that point, over half of the mixed paper and plastics recycled across the globe were imported to China.

But under the new policy, China became a lot stricter, severely limiting the items it would buy from other countries and only accepting waste with a 0.5% contamination rate. To put that in perspective, at least 25% of items collected in American recycling bins are contaminated, said Melissa Baldwin, community relations coordinator at Waste Management in Tampa.

Suddenly America’s biggest foreign export market for recyclables disappeared, but the flow of bottles, cans and boxes didn’t stop. Facilities could continue sorting recyclables, but finding places to buy them became a challenge. Just a few weeks ago, NPR’s Planet Money stated, “recycling is on life support.”

Workers inspect materials at the Waste Management facility in Ybor. [Courtesy of Waste Management] [WASTE MANA | ]

Is recycling dead?

The good news: At least in the Southeast, there are still domestic manufacturing facilities that want our recyclables.

Pinellas and Hillsborough both consistently score high for their recycling efforts in statewide rankings, partially thanks to a unique partnership between the two counties. But even though our region is good at getting people to recycle, there is still confusion about the process, Baldwin said.

“Recycling is still a really good thing," she said. “As long as we do it right.”

What happens after you place your recyclables in the bin?

Reporter Gabrielle Calise and Tampa Bay Times reader Jeanne Coleman took a tour of the Waste Management facility in Ybor. [Tracee Stockwell | TIMES] [TRACEE STOCKWELL | ]

If you live in Hillsborough or Pinellas counties, the contents of your curbside bin will probably be scooped up by a Waste Management truck and taken to the company’s materials recovery facility in Ybor City. Five of WM’s 100 locations are in Florida, and last year they processed more than 500,000 tons of recyclables in the state.

We took a tour to see what exactly happens. Jeanne Coleman, a reader who wondered if Tampa Bay recycling programs were successful, donned a hard hat and joined us.

Inside WM’s loud, dusty factory is a network of metal catwalks that loop up and around the hissing machines. Fans push around hot, sour air as items clang and churn along a conveyer belt. We had to wear special headphones to hear our tour guide, Melissa Baldwin, explain how it all works.

First, trucks bring the recyclables to be weighed. This is how WM keeps track of what goes in and what comes out. The difference is the amount of items that are contaminated.

All of the materials are dumped onto the tipping floor to be mixed together and visually inspected.

Once items arrive at the Waste Management facility, everything is weighed and mixed together before the sorting can begin. [TRACEE STOCKWELL | Times] [TRACEE STOCKWELL | Tampa Bay Times]

“Each sorting machine...is looking for a specific thing," Baldwin said. "We want to mix it up so we never overwhelm any one machine as the materials go through the process.”

Visual inspection is next. A conveyer belt transports the trash up two stories high to the presorting line.

Items flow along a conveyer belt. [Video from Waste Management] [WASTE | ]

Before the machines can sort the trash, humans are the first line of defense. Workers in the presort line look for anything that can damage the machines or hurt the people working down the line.

Most of these items are giant bags, yard waste, scrap metal or wood. But workers have found propane tanks, boat anchors and firearms.

Workers at Waste Management sort through recyclable materials. [Video courtesy of Waste Management] [WASTE MANAGEMENT | ]

As the mixed waste flows along, five sets of ‘star screens,’ or spinning rubber disks, kick up paper to separate it from the rest of the stream.

Large stars capture pieces of cardboard, while smaller stars grab newspapers and junk mail. As the paper crawls up, cans and bottles fall through the stars and continue on.

Star screens sort paper and cardboard. [Video courtesy of Waste Management] [WASTE MANAGEMENT | ]

Two optical scanners shine infrared lights on the belt below and send a puff of air to divert any paper that the stars didn’t catch to the right path.

Next, items fall onto fine screens (similar to star screens, but made of metal). When the glass bottles hit these screens, they shatter and break. Glass shards fall below as the rest of the items roll along. Puffs of air blow dust off the glass, and a density separator evens out the pieces.

After that, plastic jugs and bottles are collected, pushed by puffs of air from two optical scanners.

This orange contraption is an optical scanner that uses infrared light and puffs of air to detect and divert items. [Courtesy of Waste Management] [WASTE MANAGEMENT | ]

There are seven different kinds of plastic, but the first two are most ideal for WM to sort and sell to manufacturers: #1 polyethylene terephthalate, or PET plastic (think translucent water bottles) and #2 high-density polyethylene plastic (think milk jugs or shampoo bottles).

Plastics #3 through #7 (for example, cream cheese containers and red solo cups) are still accepted by WM, but there’s no guarantee that companies will buy them after the facility sorts them. Baldwin says that there just isn’t a demand for them right now.

A giant magnet attracts steel cans, separating them from the line. An eddy current separator repels aluminum cans, shooting them off the belt into the proper container.

Aluminum cans are the most valuable items for WM. The electricity saved from recycling just one is able to power a laptop for two hours or a TV for three hours. Aluminum also has the fastest turnaround — only about 60 days will pass between someone putting a soda can in the recycling bin and a new can landing on the shelves for another person to buy.

Currents are used to attract and deflect different types of metal during the sorting process. [Courtesy of Waste Management] [WASTE MAN | ]

All of the different items, now sorted, are inspected by workers in the quality control line and smushed into bales. The bales will be shipped out to various facilities — some in Florida and others across the Southeast — and made into other products.

Bales of plastic and cardboard wait to be shipped out to facilities. [Courtesy of Waste Management] [WASTE MANAGEMENT | ]

What should you recycle?

Baldwin encourages folks to only recycle items made of one material (for instance, a toy made of both plastic and metal should not be recycled), and make sure everything is clean and dry. The focus is on the items that have somewhat stable markets. This includes:

  • Steel and aluminum food and drink cans. These have the highest value and can be made into a new item quicker than any other material.
  • Paper and cardboard. Every time a ton of paper is recycled, that saves 16 trees. WM accepts loose paper, newspapers, magazines, junk mail and even phone books. Just make sure all boxes are broken down.
  • Plastic bottles and jugs. If the lid is also plastic, keep it screwed on.
  • Glass bottles and jars. Remove metal or plastic caps before recycling your glass bottles.
Aluminum cans are some of the most profitable items for recycling companies. They also have the fastest turnaround period. [TRACEE STOCKWELL | Times]

What about plastic bags and Styrofoam?

Publix and other grocery stores work with separate recycling facilities capable of processing foam egg trays, plastic bags and sleeves from dry cleaning. These products transform items that WM can’t process into goods like composite lumber and outdoor furniture.

“They essentially act like a mini recycling company just to put money back in the system” said Travis Barnes, recycling coordinator at Hillsborough’s Solid Waste Management Division.

Publix spokesman Brian West was not able to specify just how much people in Tampa Bay recycle at local Publix stores or where the items go specifically due to nondisclosure agreements with recycling facilities.

What belongs in the trash instead of the recycling bin?

Consumers often fall into the trap of wishful recycling, or thinking “They’ll figure out a way to do something with this."

“When people do that it’s just as detrimental as when people throw in lawn clippings or dirty diapers,” Barnes said.

Here are the most common items that cannot be processed at the local Waste Management facility.

  • Anything smaller than a hockey puck. Plastic flossers, loose bottle caps, batteries or any other compact items will get swept up by the machines. Because of their tiny size, these items often end up contaminating recycled glass.
  • Paper that is shredded or wet. WM’s machines depend on item shape and rigidity to sort. Wet paper could coat a bottle, causing optical sensors to miss them. Shredded paper could get blown around like confetti (if you do have shredded paper to recycle, search for a drop-off location here).
  • Tanglers. Anything that can clog machines is considered a tangler, including plastic shopping bags, plastic film, garden hoses and Christmas lights. Combinations of certain items, like wire and clothing, can even start fires when wrapped throughout the whirring machines. Waste Management has scheduled breaks eight times a day to remove these kinds of items, and workers must crawl inside the machines with box cutters to fix the snags.
  • Bagged items. “If you bag your recycling, it’s as good as throwing it in the garbage," Baldwin said. It’s too time consuming, not to mention dangerous, for workers to open sealed bags.
  • Soiled items. It’s not necessary to peel off labels — just give items a quick rinse to remove food chunks before recycling. Anything soiled beyond that, from grease-soaked pizza boxes to jars smeared with peanut butter, should just go in the trash.

Still not sure if you can recycle something? Throw it out. It might feel wasteful, but anything that isn’t supposed to be recycled will slow the whole process. Depending on where you live, your trash may be incinerated to create energy.

Other tips:

  • Break down cardboard boxes, but don’t crush cans or plastic bottles. WM’s machines are designed to recognize items in their original form.
  • Recycling is the last part of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra for a reason. Try to avoid using items like this in the first place.
  • Learn how to reduce single use plastics.
  • Every municipality has different requirements. Check your local community’s recycling website. Read recycling guides for Hillsborough and Pinellas, and learn about the partnership between the two counties here.
  • Find and contact your county recycling coordinator if you have questions.
  • And finally, seek out items made of recycled materials when shopping. “None of this makes sense if no one buys this," Baldwin said. “It’s not enough just to recycle. We have to support the end market.”

What questions do you have about the Tampa Bay area or Florida?

Fill out the form below or email your inquiries to floridawonders@tampabay.com. Here are some ideas if you need inspiration:

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