By Lisa D. Mickey
There is a wide range of misinformation circulating on social media and in conversation when it comes to recycling here in Volusia County.
One belief is that everything – trash and recycling – is dumped into the same truck and taken to the county landfill. Another belief is that New Smyrna is no longer recycling at all.
Here’s the news flash: Both of these popular notions are wrong.
Ken DeForest, division manager of Waste Pro in Volusia County, was more than happy recently to debunk misconceptions and provide clear information about how our curbside recycling works.
“We have spent a lot of money to continue recycling, so yes, we are still recycling,” said DeForest. “We have about 35 people working full time in recycling in this area.”
DeForest said Waste Pro’s recycling plant originally cost about $8 million, but it had to be upgraded “to make a cleaner material” that would be bought around the world.
The plant’s daily processing capacity was lowered by about 20 percent, while staffing increased by 10 percent. These steps were taken to make sure locally recycled materials were “cleaner” and “there was a place to go with the material,” he added.
While New Smyrna Beach and Volusia County have repeatedly communicated that recycling is alive and well, rumors about the program’s demise have persisted. When asked about the confusion, DeForest thinks he knows why local residents insist their recycling is being taken to the county landfill.
According to DeForest, some of the confusion in New Smyrna Beach goes back to three years ago, when a different company picked up residential recycling.
At that time, recycled items were picked up in a different style of truck called curb-sort trucks. Workers in the curb-sort trucks would separate all recycling containers — such as glass, metal and plastic — from the fiber materials — such as cardboard and paper — into separate compartments of the truck as they emptied residential recycling bins.
“Those trucks look very different from the trucks that pick up the large garbage bins,” DeForest noted.
When Waste Pro took over the contract, it converted recycling collection to what is called single-stream collection – designed to make recycling more convenient for residential customers. The process did not require residents to sort recycled items.
“With the single-stream process, residents can put all the material – the fiber, the cardboard, newspapers, magazines – and mix them with all the plastic, glass bottles and metal containers,” he explained. “That allows us to use a compaction truck.”
And, while citizens no longer see the curb-sort trucks and only see the large Waste Pro trucks in their neighborhoods, DeForest added there is also a difference in the trucks that pick up solid and yard waste, from those that collect recycling.
“We use the same style of truck for recycling, so you can somewhat understand the confusion because a customer will see a truck go by and it looks like a garbage truck,” he said. “The difference is one truck picks up solid waste and one picks up materials for recycling.”
DeForest says Waste Pro starts each day with an empty truck and they only pick up recycling in those trucks. The recycled material is then hauled to a different place. While garbage and yard waste are transported to the county landfill, the recycling is taken to Waste Pro’s transfer station in Ormond Beach.
Some 14 tons of recycled material is then reloaded into tractor trailer trucks in Ormond Beach for the long haul up to a recycling plant in Ocala. Recycled items from local households go from trucks to conveyor belts to sorting stations. Some of the sorting is completed by automation and some is done by hand.
“We are spending a lot of resources to collect recycling separately from solid waste,” said DeForest. “In New Smyrna Beach and all our cities where we recycle, we are collecting the material and transporting it to Ormond Beach, then up to Ocala, where the recycling plant pulls it all apart.”
Three years ago, fewer recycled materials from the United States were being purchased internationally. When that happened, DeForest said companies like Waste Pro became more limited where they could ship recycled product.
“That drove down the commodity value of all the recyclables and it just made recycling a whole lot harder,” he said. “It would certainly be easier to take everything to the landfill, but we are committed to recycling.”
The market for recycled glass also has become more limited in recent years. While glass is still being collected in local recycling bins and taken for processing, DeForest admitted that sometimes it does end up in the county landfill.
“Glass is a commodity that doesn’t always have a place to go,” he said. “We haul it, but right now, there’s really no reuse of glass. The glass goes through our system and we crush it, but most of the time, it’s going back to the landfill and is used for daily cover.”
The problem with glass, he said, is that glass going through a single-stream collection process must be “an extremely clean product.” Currently, only one processing plant in Sarasota is recycling glass in Florida.
“We have tried to get them to take our glass, but they say it’s not clean enough for the material they want to make from the glass,” DeForest added.
When asked what citizens can do to help to help improve the local recycling process, DeForest said citizens could help by learning to look for the recycle symbol with numbers on products they throw into their recycling bins. For plastic items, look for the numbers 1-5 stamped inside a small triangle on the packaging. If there is no number or no recycling symbol on the item, consider it as trash. Items that are not stamped for recycling have to be hand sorted during processing to avoid contaminating usable recycled plastics.
“Sometimes, people ‘wish recycle,’ which means not all plastics can be recycled, but they recycle them anyway,” DeForest said. “The processing system is not set up to recycle these items.”
And when loads of recycled product are shipped for processing, contamination can become a very expensive issue for companies like Waste Pro.
“The last thing you want to do is to go all through that effort to recycle and the load is rejected,” he added. “Then you have some 40 tons of material stuck overseas and what are you going to do with it? It could cost thousands of dollars to send it somewhere for somebody not to want it.”
DeForest encourages citizens to wash out items like peanut butter jars and jelly containers before placing them in recycling bins. Failure to do so can “gum up the system,” he said.
Caps should also be left on bottles, he added. Optical scanners at the processing centers can recognize bottles and sort them into appropriate lots. If caps are removed and bottles are crushed, the item must be hand-sorted, which is less efficient.
Citizens also don’t have to remove labels from glass or plastic bottles. When the items are processed, the items are chipped into small pieces and the paper is eliminated.
And while cardboard and paper are acceptable items for recycling, pizza boxes are considered trash. Once again, DeForest noted, the grease in pizza boxes can impact and slow processing.
“When you look at the system’s cost, the extra items that can’t be recycled end up costing extra fuel, labor, time sorting and electricity at the plant, only to be thrown away after all of that,” said DeForest. “If somebody puts something in recycling that can’t be recycled, there’s just a lot of hauling and handling that ultimately ends at the landfill.”