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Recycle Smart: Lee County Solid Waste offers recycling guidance

By Staff | Jul 19, 2018

Picking the right container, trash or recycling, is the key message to Lee County Solid Waste Division’s campaign “Recycle Smart.”

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection recently released data that ranked Lee County third in the state with a 74 percent recycling rate, which puts the county on track to meet the 75 percent statewide recycling goal by 2020.

For the county to reach that 74 percent, 19.4 million pounds of trash – nearly 10,000 tons – had to be pulled out of the recycling carts. This effort cost taxpayers $362,871.

Molly Schweers, a Lee County Solid Waste Division spokesperson, said although the Recycle Smart campaign is a couple years old, it’s receiving renewed interest from the community.

“Recycling is getting trickier and trickier,” she said, adding that China stopped taking their newspaper and mixed paper recycling material as of May 1. “It is more important than ever. These are commodities that we are trying to sell.”

Meanwhile, commodity prices are down. This past fall, paper sold for $77 a ton. That amount has decreased to $7 a ton.

“Recycling doesn’t make economic sense” if the county is spending more time digging through items that are not supposed to be in the recycling cart.

If the community is recycling smart, they are only placing five key items into their recycling cart. Those include metal cans (both aluminum and steel); plastic containers labeled No. 1 through No. 7 on the bottom or side; glass bottles and jars, cardboard boxes unless they held a liquid or a frozen food and papers that are not shredded or soiled.

“The greenest of green people don’t seem to understand what recycling is all about. Recycling is preparing a feed stock for the next step in the manufacturing process,” she said.

Anything in the cart that is not one of the five materials is considered contamination. During season, the contamination rate is at a lower percentage, than when it’s mainly just locals living in Lee County.

“It’s only five things. It still has useful life in it,” Schweers said. “We are trying to figure out what is the best end use for all the material we get. Those five things, we can sell those.”

She said they sort through 350-400 tons of material a day, so they do not have the luxury of saying “that isn’t the best end use of that product.”

Lee County Solid Waste has a process, which includes the sorters looking for those five items because they have manufactures that will purchase those goods as manufactures can use those products to make more products.

For example, take the life of a soda can.

An individual uses the can and then the Lee County Solid Waste Division breaks it down into pieces before it is sent to Sarasota. It then gets separated by color and sent to northern Florida where they sell it and reuse the material.

In the past, the county has received about $2 million a year after they pay for collecting, sorting and getting the recycled material to the market.

“That helps us make sure everyone can have a recycling cart,” Schweers said.

Schweers asks individuals to not bag their recyclables. She said if individuals put carefully sorted recyclables into plastic bags they do not have time to break that apart and it ends up in the trash.

“The sorters are on point that plastic bags are bad and to get it out of there,” she said. “Plastic bags, or film – pool covers, shower curtains – none of that is material we accept.”

Schweers said 60 percent of material in a household fall into one of the five categories. For example if a family has a box of spaghetti with a jar of tomato sauce, those can be placed into the recycling cart.

In terms of paper, she asks the community to leave such items as greasy barbecue napkins out of the recycling cart.

“Paper plates covered in food, throw it away,” Schweers said. “Choose the right container. Is it trash? Is it done and gross, rotten leftovers in the back of the fridge? Throw it away. We have to keep the food out of the recycling stream, it contaminates the paper we sell.”

As far as boxes go, if they held liquid or frozen food, they are treated and they will not break apart and so can not be recycled.

The items that are not part of the Recycle Smart goes to the waste plant and gets burned and turned into electricity. Waste Solid Management is constantly figuring out what the best next home is for the material they receive.

“If this is gross, stinky trash we can capture the energy contained in that for electricity,” Schweers said. “The process we use in Lee County is much faster and saves landfill space. We are able to recover metals from the ash . . . able to get another useful product.”

It’s important that the community is aware of their own waste and choosing the right container. Property owners receive an annual assessment, a once a year amount on their tax bill, that they are responsible to pay for solid waste management in the county. For Cape Coral homeowners this is based on the value of their home.

“If you put trash in your recycling, we have to pay to move it over to waste energy,” Schweers said.

In this case, she said homeowners are paying the fee twice.

“We pay with the people’s money. You have already paid for trash disposal and recycling collection. Nonrecycling you pay twice,” Schweers said.

Choosing wrong amounts to $400,000 a year.

Recycling does not include placing old pillows off the sofa, or old sheets, into the recycling cart.

“Reuse what you can, or give it to the appropriate place,” she said. “That is a hard thing for people to get their arms around. We are not a reuse store. We are not a Goodwill or Salvation Army. People sort through what is coming in for recycling. We are sorting through to get those five things we want.”

With haulers becoming more stringent about recycling material they collect, recycling carts that contain plastic bags might be tagged as contaminated and left at the curb. In addition, any cart containing food waste, or diapers, bedspreads, or sheets, will also be left behind.

For more information on how to Recycle Smart, visit www.leecounty.com/solidwaste.