A Tale Of Too Much 'Wishcycling': A Look At Miami-Dade's Low Recycle Rate

Dec 19, 2018

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle seems like a simple formula. But Miami-Dade County has one of the lowest recycle rates in the state. Eighteen percent of total collected waste gets recycled, according to Florida's Department of Environmental Protection. The reason is not as simple as what gets thrown away. 

Every other Thursday, Palmetto Bay residents Jeff Oberg and Eliza Fendell take their blue 65-gallon recycling bin to the curb outside their home and wait for it to be picked up.

It's an honest effort from a family that admits they throw away way too much.

Eliza Fendell (left) and Jeff Oberg (right).
Credit Andrew Quintana / WLRN

On those Thursday pick ups, the family's recycled material is dumped into a truck and driven away to be recycled -- or at least they hope that's what happens. The couple admits they're not really sure what they’re allowed to recycle. And, they aren’t sure what happens if they throw the wrong things into the recycling bin.

“You can tell me it went to the moon and that would be the most information I’d gotten from anybody,” Oberg says.

Millions of residents in Miami-Dade County toss a combined 10-pounds of garbage every day, according to Florida's Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).

According to the FDEP, only 18 percent of Miami-Dade county’s waste is recycled. Compared to other counties like Broward and Palm Beach, which recycle 33 and 45 percent of their waste, respectively, Miami-Dade is one of the lowest in the state of Florida. It's a perfect storm of issues: contamination from people throwing the wrong items into recycling bins, markets not willing to buy materials, and the way Florida records recycling numbers.

“Recycling is a business,” says Jeanmarie Massa, Recycling Coordinator for Miami-Dade County. “[Miami-Dade]’s part of the business is we are providing a service to our residents.”

In Miami-Dade County, private companies have handled recycling since the 1990s. 

Companies incur the cost of recycling in a certain area. They take into account the price of a truck, the wage of a driver, fuel for the truck, maintenance and more. Once they budget those costs out, they give the county a price for their services. The county pays a ‘per household fee’ and receives a set amount of money for every ton the company collects.

This bidding is why only half the cities in Miami-Dade use recycling services offered by the county. If the price isn’t right, cities create their own recycling programs.

For example, Coral Gables does not contract with Miami-Dade and therefore has a different standard for recycling.

In Coral Gables, residents receive a 14-gallon recycling bin, which they place in their backyards. Every week employees enter the yard and check to see if the correct items are in the bin. Once the wrong items are removed, it’s dumped into a truck.

Most cities follow a similar routine: trucks come by, pick up recycling bins, and send the materials to a transfer station. At the transfer station, workers try their best to sort out and take away items that can’t be recycled.

From there, separate trucks venture off to Reuters recycling facility in Pembroke Pines, one of the largest recycling facilities in the Southeastern United States. The facility is owned by Waste Management Incorporated, one of three companies Miami-Dade County pays to handle recycling in the county. Hundreds of tons of recyclable material goes through Reuters each day.

At the end of the day, facilities contract with counties because they are creating bails of recycled material to sell to countries and companies. If material is not sold then it is not recycled. 

Waste Management spokesperson Dawn McCormick attributes Miami-Dade’s low number to the issue of recyled material not being sold. It stems from what she calls ‘wishcycling,' when people throw away items they think can be recycled.

“People want to do the right thing for the environment,” McCormick says. “They’re kind of wishcycling: ‘Oh, I hope this can be recycled. Let me put it in and they’ll figure it out. Oh, I hope this.’”

For instance, a pizza box is cardboard so people may think it’s okay to recycle. But, the grease can leak and sit on everything in a bin. And when that bin is picked up and dumped into a truck, the grease can spread to other recycled material. Everything that grease touches is contaminated.

Plastic bags are not recyclable. They can tangle up inside sorting machines and halt production.
Credit Lily Oppenheimer / WLRN

McCormick says contamination is the largest issue the recycling industry faces. If the material is contaminated then it cannot be sold.

China used to be the biggest buyer of recycled material. But earlier this year, they passed a new law requiring that all recycled material imported into the country be no more than 0.5 percent contaminated. Waste Management in Miami-Dade County receives material at 25 percent contamination.

“In some cities here in South Florida, it’s as high as 40 percent,” McCormick says.

With such a large player virtually out of the game, recycled material can end up sitting at facilities. 

“You’re actually creating more of an environmental burden than a benefit,” McCormick says. “Because you’re trying to recycle things that ultimately no one wants to purchase. And you’ve done more harm than good.”

But Massa says Miami-Dade’s 18 percent official recycling rate does not capture the full picture.

Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection determines a county’s recycling rate by adding two different categories of recycled materials together. 

The typical items picked up from the bin on your curb -- paper, plastic, metal, glass, and textile -- are one group, which FDEP classifies as Certified items. 

Oil, oil filters, car batteries, and concrete -- which are found in commercial and construction waste -- are the second group of materials, called Non-Certified. 

Adding the total tons of Certified and Non-Certified recycled material together and comparing that to the overall waste a county collects is how the recycling rate is put together.

According to Massa and FDEP, curbside recycling is just a small portion of what counties recycle. The majority of recycled material comes from commercial and construction waste. Miami-Dade does not collect that waste and is not required to record those numbers with the state.

“When they are talking about what is recycled out of the garbage, it is everything that is considered waste,” Massa says.

Some construction companies do recycle. They can turn wood into mulch, or reuse debris for other projects. 

Having to record the total waste a county collects, but not having the same access to recycling numbers can drastically drop the area's recycling rate. Massa says the recycling rate she sent the state was around 30 percent.

So, where do families like Jeff and Eliza’s fit in the recycling process? 

McCormick says when in doubt, throw it out. The only things that should be going into recycling bins, she says:

“Clean and dry cardboard, papers, bottles, and cans.”