Wouldn’t it be nice if we could recycle everything?

Judging by how much trash gets put in the wrong place despite good intentions, a lot of people in Charlotte and Sarasota counties might feel that way.

They’re trying to do the right thing for the environment, but end up going too far and ultimately commit “wish-cycling,” according to those running the area’s recycling programs.

Some problems that need fixing, include:

• No old plastic grocery bags, please.

• Keep the greasy pizza boxes out of the recycling bin, too.

• Please don’t leave any liquid in those bottles you want to recycle — and much more.

Recycling has evolved over the years, said Dawn McCormick, director of communications for Waste Management. “We know more today than we knew in the past. Charlotte can do a better job and get more correct material into their recycle bins.”

There isn’t a county or municipality, which hasn’t gone through these challenges with recycling, said Todd Kucharski, general manager of public services with the city of Sarasota.

”I think people want to do the right thing, but need to know what the rules are to do that,” he said.

Here’s a refresher...

Doing it right Even though contaminated recycling has become a problem nationally and beyond, there still are people doing it right, and making an impact.

It came down to common sense for the Peace River Wildlife Center to start a recycling program several years ago at its home base at Ponce de Leon Park in Punta Gorda.

Not only could it raise money as a nonprofit by recycling aluminum cans, it could also help out the center’s Punta Gorda neighbors and work to save the environment all in one — a cause close to home for a wildlife sanctuary.

“We make between $200 to $1,000 a month with our recycling program, depending on the season,” said Dr. Robin Jenkins, director of veterinary services at PRWC. “We (mostly) get aluminum cans and we recycle those with Allied Recycling (of Port Charlotte). We also get a lot of plastic, paper and cardboard that the city collects.”

But it’s not perfect.

“If it’s contaminated; however, we have to throw it out,” Jenkins said.

Kucharski explained he doesn’t think people are being lazy, they just aren’t paying full attention.

“It’s human nature — they want to try to do the right thing — (but they don’t) pay attention to the directions provided of what can go in there,” he said. “I had a teacher growing up that always told us, ‘When in doubt, if you don’t understand it, raise your hand.’”

Why the rules?Waste Management is a disposal and recycling company contracted by Punta Gorda, Charlotte County and Sarasota County, among other regions nationally. The city of Sarasota works with WastePro for their recycling needs.

A material is not recyclable unless it has someone who is willing to buy it, according to McCormick ... usually compacted into “bales” like that of hay. If one of the bales contains contaminants, its value is decreased or it is outright unusable. A contaminant can be anything from a tire, to a plastic bag to a greasy pizza box.

“The inbound material we get at our processing facility that’s recyclable is about 25 percent contaminated,” McCormick said. “This means residents are putting 25 percent of unacceptable recycling material or garbage in their recycling containers.”

To sell a bale of recycled material, the contamination percentage can only be 0.5 percent.

“We are a manufacturing processor,” McCormick said. “There’s no way we can take something in 25 to 30 percent garbage (contaminated) and make a sell-able bale at the end at 0.5 percent.”

There has been more pressure on recycling plants compiling “clean” bales of recycled goods recently because of China, McCormick said. Historically, most U.S. recycling went to China. But, in 2018, the country cut off imports of recyclables like magazines, office paper, junk mail and most plastics. Since then, companies like Waste Management and WastePro have been reaching out to other international markets such as Vietnam and India.

“China used to take about 50 percent of recycled material including paper and about 30 percent of overall recyclables globally. In the event of cleaning up their environment a couple of years ago, they started to restrict their market to the point that they’re importing very small percentages of recyclables,” McCormick said.

How can we do better?Keep it simple.

McCormick urges area residents to only put those materials that are considered recyclable curbside into their bins.

“Loose, clean and dry paper, cardboard, bottles and cans,” McCormick said. “What they should not be trying to recycle curbside are plastic bags, plastic film (dry cleaning bags) that can be taken back to a retailer. Hoses and cords. Clothing. Any metal beyond what goes with the cans.”

Plastic bags continue to be a major problem for recycling plants.

Other things like food or plastic-type toys and items are also a problem.

“Things that we’re getting that we shouldn’t be getting ultimately have to come out the back-end and then be trucked away and disposed of in a landfill because it’s garbage. It should never have been in a recycling bin in the first place. In the meantime, we’ve had to slow down our lines to get that material out,” McCormick said.

Because of the improper recycling, processing plants like WM have had to add extra workers and deal with damage to the equipment

“That drives up costs,” McCormick said. “Some of it gets through into the bails and it diminishes the quality and commodity price that we could get for the good material because some of that has made its way into the bale. It’s a huge problem in Florida and nationally for residents either thinking they’re doing the right thing and recycling, putting material in that shouldn’t be in.”

Still, in some cases, some residents just use their recycling bin as an extra garbage can and fill it with garbage.

“That ruins the efforts of the people who are really trying to recycle right and it makes it challenging for everyone,” McCormick said.

Education continuesThere is no lack in educational efforts by municipalities, counties and nonprofits around Southwest Florida.

The biggest action when it comes to education is making it continuous, according to Kucharski.

“You can’t just do a one-time blitz of information. It has to be continuous. We have our drivers acting as recycling ambassadors,” Kucharski said.

When Sarasota’s drivers are out collecting, they talk with residents and leave notices.

“One of our notices is for ‘kudos’ and one is for not recycling properly and why we didn’t pick up there cart. It’s a continual process that you have to go through.”

In Charlotte County, there is an outreach program as well as community events. The county also created a video that plays on CC-TV, Facebook and YouTube.

The county also operates mini-transfer stations at two locations in Port Charlotte and Englewood to help residents recycle things like oil, batteries, paint, etc.

In Punta Gorda, the city is educating residents on the do’s and don’ts of recycling through several methods, including city council presentations, the city’s website and weekly highlights reports.

“We are discussing the changes to the recycling industry as well as what items are acceptable for recycling collection in the city of Punta Gorda,” said Jenna Blackway, city public works supervisor. “This is all for the purpose of avoiding and reducing contamination in the recycling collection and processing.”

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