‘Wish-cycling’ won’t cure contamination at Indian River County landfill

Reprinted Story by Cindy Schwarz, The Newsweekly Published 8:19 a.m. ET March 18, 2019 | Updated 8:24 a.m. ET March 18, 2019


Sue Flak, Recycling Education Coordinator of the Indian River County Solid Waste Disposal District, is well aware of the recycling statistics.

Those numbers show that at least 30 percent of all trash put into recycle bins is contaminated. The public’s recycling intentions are good, but its execution to convert trash into biodegradable waste is often lacking.

“We call it ‘wish-cycling’,” said Flak.

A big part of the problem is the rules are confusing and often hard to follow. And single-stream recycling, which Indian River County converted to in October 2015, increases the problem. In fact, estimates show that single-stream recycling has increased the amount of recyclables that are contaminated.

One blue cart where you throw all your biodegradable waste seems easy, as opposed to the old way of separating between paper and non-paper products into two bins. But this single approach has created a mindset where everything gets tossed into the recycle cart.

 “I know it’s difficult to know what to recycle,” said Flak. “But educating ourselves makes sense.”

Biggest offenders

Believe it or not, one of the biggest recycling contaminators is food. A slice left in the pizza box with oil saturating the cardboard, plastic containers not washed out properly or steel cans with food stuck on the side all cannot be recycled.

Another blue-cart offender are loose plastic films used to cover your food in the grocery story. Even clothes are a recycling no-no.

“We’ve gotten bowling balls, shower rods, carpet, and bicycles in the blue carts,” Flak noted.

All the trash you place in the blue cart ends up at the Material Recovery Facility in Fort Pierce where the sorting takes place.

Optical and magnetic sorters scan the potential recycling material on a conveyor belt-type assembly line; but even this technology cannot always keep up with the contaminated trash that makes its way to the facility. 

These “misses” cause shut-downs, damaged machinery, and even injuries to workers.

“At least five times per day, sometimes 10 or more times, the production line stops due to huge jams in the assembly line’s gears,” stated Flak.

Altering the assembly line speed and adding more workers who visibly detect and grab contaminators has helped alleviate the problem. But these changes impact the bottom line, making “going green” less affordable.

Less accepted, less profit

And the contaminated trash needs to go somewhere. Since 1996, China was the largest importer of recyclable material, accepting 7 percent of the world’s contaminated waste. However, since 2016, it has accepted less than 1 percent of that refuse.

Americans are among the world’s worst recycling contaminators. Locally, this means unwanted, contaminated recyclables are mixed in with actual garbage. This equates to almost 450 tons of garbage collected per day in IRC. That’s nearly six pounds of garbage per person per day.

Effective recycling saves the toilsome back-and-forth transfer of recyclables trucked out to be sorted at the Fort Pierce facility and then having the contaminated refuse shipped back to be “laid on the hill” at the Indian River County main landfill.

Every night that mountain of garbage must be layered — like a homemade lasagna — with 100 tons of brush that is collected then mulched. This layering also helps mask the hill’s noxious gases, and overwhelming stench.

Fumes do add up

The current 180-foot high landfill hill (making it the highest peak in Indian River County) will be capped soon and closed as it has reached the maximum height allowed. A new 10-acre “hill” is being readied adjacent to the old one. Even still, according to local estimates, by the year 2070 the county will be out of room for garbage at its current site.

And all that buried garbage will remain in place, steeping; because, much of it will never compost, break down, or ever completely go away.

Local rotting garbage produces an estimated 1,000 cubic feet/minute of methane gas which emits into the atmosphere and is 20 times more harmful than carbon monoxide. This toxicity adds to the greenhouse gas effect and has been cited as a helping cause to global warming.

And these fumes will remain as long, if not longer, than the rotting garbage.

Moving forward

Getting the recycling rules right should be a global – and local — obligation. Overzealousness, confusion, and sometimes laziness contributes to the problem of contaminated recyclable waste.

Taking some time to become educated on what to do with waste is key. One bit of advice from the experts is if you are not certain what can be recycled don’t risk damaging expensive equipment and contaminating a load of potential recyclable material.

“When in doubt, throw it out,” said Flak.

But that should be the least desirable solution. If residents took some extra time to learn the rules and handle biodegradable waste with a little more care, “successful” recycling would benefit us all.

If you would like to learn more, Sue Flak, SWDD Education Coordinator will talk about Hands-on Recycling and Rules at the Main Library on April 4 at 6 p.m.

For more information call the Indian River Solid Waste Disposal District at 772-770-5112 or visit www.ircrecycles.com

What can I put in my cart?

  • PLASTICS: All plastic containers except for plastic bags or plastic film. Bulky rigid plastics, for example, buckets, flower pots (no soil), and laundry baskets. Please empty, lightly rinse and discard caps.
  • PAPER: All paper not contaminated by food, including newspaper, magazines, catalogs, telephone books, junk mail, office paper, cardboard, paper bags, paperboard food boxes including clean pizza boxes, chipboard paper, file folders, envelopes with and without windows, paperback books, mixed paper, paper towel and toilet tissue rolls etc.
  • ASEPTIC FOOD AND BEVERAGE CARTONS: All juice boxes, milk and juice containers, and soup and broth containers. Please no juice pouches or straws. Please empty, lightly rinse and discard caps.
  • FOOD AND BEVERAGE CONTAINERS: All aluminum and steel cans, empty aerosol cans, clean foil, aluminum pie plates and trays. Please empty and lightly rinse. Aluminum tabs and steel caps are acceptable.
  • GLASS: All glass bottles and jars. Please empty, lightly rinse and include metal caps separately in the cart.
  • SCRAP METAL: All scrap metal items that can fit in the cart are acceptable.

What NOT to put in your cart:

  • Electronics, Hoses, Pyrex Cookware, Styrofoam, Six Pack Rings, Plastic Bags, Clothing, Rubber Items, Ceramics, Shrink Wrap, Plastic Bottle Caps, Candles with Wax and Window Glass. More items may apply and this list may be expanded in the future. If you have any questions, please call (772) 770-5112.
  • Shredded paper: The new processor will not accept shredded paper as a recyclable item because the small pieces fall through their conveyors and ends up going into the landfill. Since shredded paper should be placed in the garbage, we encourage you to shred confidential information only and don’t shred more paper than necessary. Consider tearing it up and placing it in your recycling cart. Shredded paper can also be used for compost, packing material or bedding for small animals. There are also local stores that will recycle shredded paper for a minimal fee.
  • Batteries: Batteries should NOT be placed in the recycling cart. Some batteries, such as rechargeable batteries, automobile batteries, cell phone batteries, and button batteries can be recycled at the Customer Convenience Centers or the Main County Landfill. ‘Flashlight batteries’ (single-use batteries in 9 volt, C, D, AA, and AAA) are now safe to dispose of in the trash. The added hazardous component of alkaline batteries, mercury was eliminated in the 1990s, and nearly all of the old mercury alkaline batteries have been disposed of. Have more questions about proper battery recycling and disposal? Take a look at the battery guide from the Department of Environmental Protection.

Source: Indian River County Board of County Commissioners website (www.ircrecycles.com/Residential_Recycling.htm)