I had the unique opportunity to tour the Waste Management Recycling Center in Pembroke Pines, FL. I have found that my work and interest in marine debris is directly linked to the local communities ability to properly manage their trash, and so have pursued a better understanding of waste management and recycling. After volunteering at the recycling table for Ocean Kids, I realized that most people, including myself, don’t fully understand what happens to recyclables once they leave the curb. So I went looking for answers.
Apparently there is one recycling center, three landfills and a waste-to-energy plant in the tri-county area (Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties).
The recycling plant collects 6,000 tons a day. It was shocking to see the mound of recycling that had not been processed. Lots of people think that all plastic things are recyclable, and if in doubt, recycle, because it is better for the environment. But the truth is, that if you are recycling improperly, you might be hurting the process more than helping. Shiraz, our tour guide, said that 30% of the materials collected are not recyclable. These products must be sorted out, and discarded. Some improperly recycled products (like grocery bags) can actually damage the machinery, and shut down the sorting causing loss of time and money (this happened while we were on the sorting floor).
Paper and cardboard products are separated out on conveyor belts using their density. Metals are separated by large magnets. But I was most impressed by the light optic sorting of different types of plastics. Once separated all streams human checked. Then similar materials are pressed and bailed into large bricks. These bricks are shipped to China, where a number of things can happen. I will be writing about that in the next few weeks.
I think it would surprise a lot of people how complicated recycling really is. It is a lot more than taking a used water bottle, and making another used water bottle. I also think a better understanding of the recycling process would help the community be more accurate in their recycling. I have recycled a lot of things that I now know are not actually recyclable in South Miami, whether it be because of the market value or the machinery. Glass, for example, is a material that is infinitely recyclable. But there are no glass processing plants in the area, and because such few commodities come in glass, the market price for it is low. The advice from WM team… reuse it, because it’s not worth recycling.
This was an important message to me, as an ecologist and a conservationist I act because I care about the environment, the ocean in particular. But this is not true for most people, and it is certainly not true for businesses. In order to create more effective recycling, it isn’t necessarily about educating the public about what is or is not recyclable (technically all forms of plastic can be melted down and made into other forms of plastic). But about building a strong, stable, profitable industry.