View All Posts

Jun 12

Dear Recyclinda: Does the SWA sort recyclables out of the trash?

Posted on June 12, 2018 at 4:02 PM by Becky Robinson


Dear Recyclinda,

Last night, our local "driveway buddies" were having a couple cold ones and solving the problems of the world. I asked where the blue recycle bin was to dispose of a brew bottle. One of the guys said, "Just throw it in the big blue trash can, it all goes to the same place anyway." I disagreed and was told, "It doesn't matter these days. All the bottles, cans, paper and plastics are automatically removed by special machines. The only reason the SWA has you use the recycle bins is because it saves them time and money having us sort it out for them." I disagreed with that too, and said I'd fact check this, just for the record.

Are my driveway buddy's assumptions correct, given the new incinerator and state-of-the-art equipment up there on 45th Street? Or, in my own defense, is the manual recycling that most environmentally-conscious neighbors do weekly, serving an important and necessary public service? I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

Regards, Bret in Royal Palm Beach

Let me start by saying: You are right. You and your environmentally-conscious neighbors provide an important – some would say vital – service to our community.

And from the sound of it, we owe you a cold one.

I hear this misperception of the SWA’s system surprisingly often, so let me start by saying that the SWA does not sort your garbage.

The SWA landfills or combusts an estimated 2 million tons of waste a year. I don’t know about you, but I am not volunteering to shuffle through Palm Beach County’s dirty diapers and yard waste to scrounge up the bottle your neighbor tossed in the trash. And practically speaking, there is no feasible method – no “special machine” – that can sort through all of that material to find the water bottles and cardboard that were not placed into recycling bins. It would that be a dangerous, expensive and monumental undertaking, not to mention one that would be entirely unpleasant.

I think where most people get confused is that once waste leaves their curb, it goes away, and away to them is one place. But the SWA operates several different facilities and the waste streams – the household garbage and the household recyclables, for two – are always kept completely separate. (Don’t cross the streams!)

Recycling trucks pick up the blue and yellow bin recyclables, which are taken to the Recovered Materials Processing Facility. Garbage trucks pick up the trash and take it to a transfer station or one of two waste-to-energy facilities. It – and I can’t stress this enough – does not go “to the same place.”

The recycling center, or RMPF as we call it, processes almost 90,000 tons of blue and yellow bin recyclables each year. After we process it – sort all the like items together – we sell it to mills or companies that use it to make new products. The revenue generated is shared 50-50 with each city after processing costs are deducted. Since the SWA started the Municipal Revenue Share Program in 2010, local municipalities have shared almost $9.3 million dollars.

It is true that household trash goes to one of our waste-to-energy facilities, where it is burned to generate electricity. So if you toss a water bottle into a trash can in Palm Beach County, it will contribute to the electrical grid, but the natural resources would not be recovered. (Please note: glass bottles do not combust and a glut of glass in the furnace can accelerate wear on our state-of-the-art equipment.)

Once the waste is burned at our facility, metals are recovered from the ashes and recycled. So if you toss a soda can into a trash bag, that melted metal will be eventually recycled, but the process of burning and recovering that can wastes energy.

If you and your driveway alliance want to see firsthand our operations, I would be more than happy to schedule a tour for you. Unfortunately, the only refreshments we offer are water and coffee, and perhaps a refreshing look at the reality of managing trash.

Final RR Horizontal_web


James Wilkerson
June 20, 2018 at 1:17 PM
Can I recycle pizza boxes or other cardboard maatrials with grease stains on them?
Becky Robinson
June 22, 2018 at 9:18 AM
Great question, James! Any paper that has grease or food (or any liquid, really) is considered "contaminated" and should not go in either recycling bin. When I order pizza, I usually end up recycling the clean top half of the box and tossing greasy bottom half in the trash, where it will be sent to one of the Solid Waste Authority's Renewable Energy facilities and used as fuel to generate electricity. Your inquiry inspired me to find the pizza box article we wrote a year or so ago and repost it online here: Thanks for your question!

You must log in before leaving your comment