(April 2020) – Sometimes when Mike Carroll drives around, he’ll see a full recycling cart with a piece of white kitchen garbage bag peeking out the top. Most people would shrug this off, but not Carroll.
As the City of Orlando’s solid waste division manager for the past 20 years, he knows a whole truckload of recycling collected at curbside can be rejected as contaminated if it contains just 15% of improper materials — those that don’t fit into one of five categories typically collected and recycled today in Central Florida.
The challenge has grown in recent years as more individuals and businesses in municipalities across Central Florida try their hands at recycling. Despite their best intentions, they don’t always get it right. People try to recycle garden hoses, children’s car seats, paint cans and worse.
“Too many unwanted or inappropriate materials, sometimes called ‘wish-cycling,’ can cause the entire load to be discarded,” Carroll said. “Recycling and proper disposal do matter in protecting the environment. That’s the reason landfills and waste energy plants have such strict criteria.”
Each municipality has its own way of handling recycling. The City of Orlando collects mixed materials from residences in one container and takes them to a Cocoa sorting facility operated by a contractor, where each load is separated. Bundles of materials are sent off and sold for use in manufacturing other products in locations including China.
The recycling business is evolving. Today much of the work is done automatically, from the truck that uses a mechanical arm to pick up the waste carts curbside to the machinery at the sorting plant. Although more people are recycling, people are not necessarily recycling more — partially because of changes in packaging. For instance, manufacturers are creating thinner cans and plastic bottles, which reduces the amount of material recycled. Over the next four years, Orlando is phasing in mandatory recycling for businesses and multifamily units in the city limits, offering services that will make it easier to comply.
To monitor how residents are doing with their recycling efforts, Orlando and other municipalities do their research. “We go into neighborhoods, peek inside carts on the day before the collection van comes, and put a hanger tag on the cart that says ‘Good job’ with a blue ribbon on it, or a tag that says ‘Oops,’” Carroll said. One of the biggest offenses is throwing away recyclable items that are bundled into plastic garbage bags. The bags get caught in the machinery at the sorting plant, and then a worker has to crawl in between the blades to cut it loose with a box knife — a dangerous job that is best avoided.
There’s a three-step rule in sustainability, Carroll said: Reuse materials as much as possible, reduce consumption of those materials, and recycle anything you can. He became passionate about the field when he was a child staying on his grandparents’ family farm in Maine. He remembers shoveling out the henhouse and using the waste for fertilizer in the garden.
But Carroll confesses that even he doesn’t recycle or reuse everything in his house. “I can tell you honestly, I have never recycled a ketchup bottle,” he said. “You can run a lot of water in it, but water is a precious commodity, so I won’t waste water on that.
“The rule of thumb I use is if it can’t be rinsed out in a quick swish, like rinsing out a cup you drank out of to fill it with another beverage, then that’s too much water. A pickle jar, absolutely. Pour the rest of the pickle juice down the drain, give it a quick swish, and now you have a clean jar that can be recycled. If you can’t clean them with a good rinse, you should discard them with the garbage.”