According to data from Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, the pre-pandemic recycling rate was at 49%, much lower than the initial 70% goal and embarrassingly low compared to San Francisco, which boasts an 80% recycling rate, and Portland, which has been leading in sustainability surveys for years. In Tampa Bay, although improvements have been made in recent years, sustainability efforts were severely thrown off track because of the COVID-19 crisis.
Whenever consumer habits change, so do recycling practices. And when so many businesses closed and people started spending more time at home, recycling rates were bound to suffer. For once, the commercial sector stopped being the cause of all evil, and concerns moved to the household sector instead. Food delivery services working round the clock meant that once again, households were generating high amounts of non-recyclable plastic waste, and disposable plastic items such as masks and empty sanitizer bottles raised plastic pollution levels.
Tampa Bay residents cited these factors as the biggest challenges of household recycling:
- Recycling isn’t convenient enough yet, and most people can’t make it part of their daily lives, either because they don’t know which items are recyclable or they don’t have a way to dispose of them responsibly.
- Household consumers don’t know what happens to recycled goods after they are placed in the bin and demand more transparency from policymakers and local recycling facilities.
- Local authorities should supplement the number of recycling bins. As people spent more time at home and produced less waste, existing recycling bins were no longer enough, and many were forced to throw recyclable waste in the same container as general waste.
Are there still domestic manufacturing facilities that want recycled goods?
The COVID-19 pandemic came at a bad time for Florida’s recycling infrastructure because policymakers still hadn’t found a generalized solution for China’s “National Sword” policy. Until January 2018, China was the largest global importer of plastic waste, and when they decided to space out imports, local authorities were left scrambling for domestic recycling solutions, Florida included. Starting with January 2021, China will no longer be accepting overseas waste, which begs the question: how well prepared is Florida to deal with domestic waste, and how many facilities accept recycled goods?
Fortunately, in Tampa Bay, the situation isn’t that bleak. The counties of Pinellas and Hillsborough are two positive examples that manage to score high in statewide rankings, and that’s because they work together a lot to develop sustainable solutions and motivating people to recycle. According to Mark Wilfalk, Tampa’s waste recycling infrastructure is robust enough not to waste money.
Some materials are more challenging to recycle than others.
Despite the growing number of public initiatives, the US has yet to crack the recycling puzzle, and one major challenge that needs to be addressed are materials that are difficult or impossible to recycle, such as polystyrene. To this day, most recycling facilities in the US continue to reject polystyrene for two big reasons. Firstly, it’s made up of 95% air, so it’s hard to store and ship. And secondly, it’s often contaminated with food, and it’s almost impossible to clean because it’s so porous. But countries such as New Zealand have found a solution for waste polystyrene: special EPS compactors that shreds polystyrene containers to remove the air inside, heats it, and compacts it, thus reducing its size by up to 97%. Through the widespread implementation of these modern solutions, the US can manage to address the challenge of polystyrene recycling too. But what about contamination?
Contaminated recyclables are still a problem.
One of the biggest problems with recycling is that most facilities have strict requirements and only accept waste with contamination levels under 0.5%. According to Melissa Baldwin, one of Tampa’s waste recycling specialists, the current contamination rate in American recycling bins is 25%. And that happens for many reasons. In the case of household consumers, it could be that packaging isn’t cleaned before it’s thrown into the recycling bin. One dirty yogurt bottle might not sound too dangerous, but that bottle can contaminate an entire lot, and when the lot reaches the recycling facility, it will automatically be rejected because it can clog and damage the machinery. Recycling facilities have trained workers that presort waste and remove any items that might damage the machines, such as pieces of scrap metal, string, or wood, but they cannot clean every item on the conveyor belt.
Things that should not be placed in the recycling bin: small items such loose bottle caps, shredded paper, plastic bags and other tanglers, grease-soaked boxes. You should never place your recyclables into plastic bags because taking them out requires too much time.
At a commercial level, things are even more complicated. Although most local businesses are doing a great job at selective recycling, the way the waste is stored before pick-up can lead to contamination. For example, if a warehouse stores cardboard waste in places with high humidity, where it comes in contact with food waste or even pests, the cardboard is contaminated and rendered useless. This problem can be solved by renting waste balers and compactors, which compress cardboard into tight packs so that they’re not contaminated.
Local authorities have also taken measures to reduce the levels of contaminated household waste, such as the Backyard Composting Program. This pilot program aims to educate Tampa residents on how to repurpose food scraps and yard waste into nutrient-rich compost instead of throwing it into the bin. The initiative came after a study found that 37% of all the things that are placed in recycling bins are contaminated (i.e., oil-stained pizza boxes, soda bottles with liquid inside, partially empty ketchup bottles, and so on). As part of the program, 500 single-family residential consumers were asked to join an online composting workshop and, upon completion, they were offered a compost bin and bucket for home use. At the same time, local authorities used outlets such as billboards and Spotify ads to raise awareness on the importance of recycling correctly.