What Really Happens to Recycling


By John Dorschner



In Miami-Dade, almost half of all recycling is “contaminated.” That means it gets thrown in the garbage.

In some cases, a wretch sneaks junk into the bottom of a recycling bin: A garden hose, say.

But in many cases, the problem is earnest, environment-loving persons who screw up because they don’t understand the rules – or because they put in material that’s technically recyclable but can’t make it through the conveyer-belt systems we have in South Florida.

The underlying data comes from Jeanmarie Manze Massa, recycling manager for Miami-Dade County: “For our system, we have a 48.8 percent contamination as of the most recent (2020) data.”

What do we do wrong?


Lots, it turns out. Many hyper-conscious folks see a recycling symbol on an item and wrongly assume the piece can be recycled. Plastic especially can be problematic. Despite the vast amount of plastic recycling numbers, only some items make it through the plastic system: Mostly small-necked bottles.

Glass is another huge problem, and it’s often not even considered “contamination.” More of that later in a separate story detailing do’s and don’ts, available HERE.

A truck dumps a load of recycling to start the process. 

Some residents cause problems by trying to be too conscientious, protecting their recycling by putting it in plastic garbage bags so it doesn’t blow away or get rained on. Every municipality says this is bad. Miami Shores puts it this way: “Any recyclable material placed in plastic bags DOES NOT get recycled! It goes to the landfill!”

Actually, that’s the best case scenario, as I saw first-hand when I visited the local Waste Connections recycling center, which is used by Miami, Miami Beach, and Miami Shores.

A plastic bag filled with recycling: 
One of worst things at a facility.

At the facility, near NW 37
th Avenue and State Road 112, a couple of dozen workers handle more than 100 tons of material a day in an automated system that uses a fast-moving conveyer belt linked to a series of screens to sort out material, with the holes getting progressively smaller.

Cardboard and flat material floats to the top while cans fall through. Optical sorters with air puffing separate the plastic and blow it into separate bins.

This is “single-stream recycling.” It works fairly well, but it’s certainly not perfect, as you can see from the accompanying photos and videos.

Why isn’t there a better system?

The short answer: You get what you pay for. 

“People don’t want to pay for recycling,” says John Heinemann, a district manager for Waste Connections. “They think, ‘It’s valuable.’ Why should I pay?”

The truth is that recycling often doesn’t pay for itself. It’s an expensive process as trucks pick it up and drive it to the centers, where machines and more workers process into it in bales. In the past several years, it’s gotten even more expensive as prices paid for some recyclables have fallen, with China no longer accepting the once-sought-after cardboard and many countries refusing to take any more American plastic.

There are more thoughtful ways of recycling – with residents separating their material into different bins. European cities often do that. In one Japanese town, residents are asked to sort their recycling into 34 different types and then carry the material themselves to a recycling center. Can you imagine trying this in any city in America, where something as simple as wearing a mask sets off firestorms of protest?


In the United States, “multi-stream is obsolete,” says Waste Connections’ Heinemann. Virtually the entire country is now single-stream. That’s what American taxpayers are willing to pay for.

Recycling centers often differ in layouts and technology, such as the number of optic scanners, but the basic operation is the same, and the Waste Connections center in Miami serves as a revealing window into what generally happens to your recycling. (The other large South Florida, Reuter Recycling Center in West Broward, operated by Waste Management, says it has stopped giving tours during the pandemic.)

At the Miami facility, the process begins with trucks dumping the material into huge piles. On one recent morning, when one truck deposited its load, I examined it with Heinemann and a couple of staffers.

A quick glance saw a plastic hose and a rubber car belt, a blue plastic suitcase – and a life-sized plastic skeleton. “Maybe someone figured because it was plastic,” said Heinemann. Among other things, the skeleton was held together by metal screws. No way it was getting through the process.

We saw plastic water bottles, glass Heineken bottles, a Cheerios box, loose plastic sheets perhaps used as wrappers, a cardboard container for Modelo beer and plenty of Amazon cardboard boxes.

An initial pile 

A bunch of no-nos in this initial pile: A plastic skeleton with metal screws, plenty of garbage bags, an air conditioning paper (thinking it's like of like paper?), a blue suitcase (plastic covering?) and a metal helium tank. 

A bright orange-red tank was labelled Balloon Time helium. A bold-faced warning on it said “Danger.” But it also said, “Empty Balloon Time tanks are fully recyclable.”

Heinemann’s comment: “The tank is steel so technically recyclable at a scrap metal yard. But not in a residential single-stream program. We get too many of those or propane tanks that are not empty....and explode.”

A helium tank marked "Danger" and "fully 
recyclable." Not really. 

Other big dangers: Lithium ion batteries have been known to spark fires at recycling facilities. Aerosol cans are a big no-no. One staffer said a 40,000-pound recycling load was once rejected by a company because it contained a single aerosol can.

We noticed also a huge plastic bag – filled with other plastic bags. Nearby, an odd white sheet of plastic was filled with white stuffing – “more plastic,” said Heinemann. The package was a product of Sealed Air, a company that boasts about its dedication to “sustainability,” and it was labeled as a recyclable No. 7 plastic.

This is intended for protective stuffing --
plastic inside a plastic package
 that's marked recyclable.
The company's website says it's
dedicated to "sustainability."
 In fact, this stuff spells disaster
 for single-stream recycling facilities.

Companies know that many consumers care about the environment and they strive to put recyclable labels on their materials to boost sales, but in fact these plastic bags – like all plastic bags – are a disaster for single-stream recycling.

They gum up the conveyer belts and gears. Three or four times a day, the Miami recycling center shuts down entirely for workers to clear away all the plastic jamming the system. The problem of these plastic “wrapables” is so great that Waste Connections keeps searching for ways – special blades, say – to reduce the problem.

This is expensive – costs ultimately made by taxpayers. And it certainly doesn’t lead to more recycling.

In fact, this intake pile contained quite a few garbage bags loaded with who-knew-what, and other bags that had been ripped open when thrown in the truck or dumped on the pile.

                            'THIS ISN'T TERRIBLE'

Despite all the problems with this load, Heinemann said, “This isn’t terrible.” Meaning he’s seen worse.

He spotted some newsprint. “Newspaper, if separated, would be valuable,” he said. But as it is, newsprint gets mingled with office paper, catalogs and cardboard – and sold as the much-less valuable “mixed paper.”

Nearby, in a large shed, was a pile of mostly brown cardboard, dotted with white materials that included a scatterring of plastic bags and other items. This pile came from companies and malls that try to do the right thing by delivering cardboard to the center.

If it was completely cardboard, Heinemann said, it could be baled as such directly, without going through the conveyor belts, but because of the other debris, processing is needed to get rid of the bad stuff, meaning the resulting bales would be sold as mixed paper.

Next, we climbed stairs. On a raised platform, the fresh recycling zoomed along on a conveyer belt as four workers, two on either side, hustled to grab bad things off the belt and toss them in holes leading to the reject bins. This is the “pre-sort.” I saw them pulling out blankets and a lot of loose plastic, including any garbage bags that remained intact.

I thought of a post I’d seen on NextDoor of a Biscayne Park resident boasting: “I purchase biodegradable trash bags…. They’re expensive. You can use them for both sources of trash or just recycling.”


And on we went: Screens let heavier items of various sizes drop into bins. An optical sorter sent out puffs of air, shooting light plastic bottles up into their own stream. Glass was chopped up and sent into bins.

Plastic that made it through the sorting system.

Cardboard that made it through the sort. 

At one point, I saw tiny bits floating down into a reject bin: mostly shredded paper/confetti and particles of glass.

At the end of the line were the processed bales. On top of an aluminum can bale was a hammer and various picks. A worker used them to pry out bits of non-aluminum.

Another pile of bales contained mixed paper. “Clean bales of white office paper have a very high value, but most facilities can’t do that,” a staffer said.

“Moisture is the enemy” for paper products. Almost all recycling is bought and sold by weight. Wet material of course weighs more, and companies that buy don’t want to pay for water – “So we can’t sell high-moisture bales.”

The plastic bales were divided into two types. One was basically small-necked water bottles and colored containers, like those used for detergents. The other was large white milk jugs.

Aluminum bales at the end of the line

Milk jugs -- No. 2 plastic -- get their own bales.

"Mixed paper" in bales -- mostly cardboard, but the mixture lowers its value.

Plastic bales ready to ship -- water bottles, detergent bottles and other stuff. Recycling plastic is one of
most complex tasks -- for consumers and for recycling companies. 

Each recycling plant is set up slightly different, which means variations in what gets recycled and what doesn’t. This Miami center is a former manufacturing plant.

For this plant, Heinemann said, they concentrate on plastics labeled 1 or 2 – and those that make it through the system are mostly small-necked bottles. “We target those.”

In fact, for the conscientious recycler, the details can get complex, depending on what center your material goes to. The nitty-gritty of do’s and don’ts is available HERE.

Back near the entrance was a shed where a bulldozer was pushing material in a vast pile of – well, junk. Construction materials, some furniture – and lots of plastic. All of that was garbage destined for the landfill.

A big reject pile, including a microwave. 

For a discussion of the recycling from Miami Shores that ends up at this plant, click HERE.

All photos by John Dorschner



  1. thanks this is really interesting and important. the link of do's and dont's in your article is not working. how are you suppose to correctly recycle??? thanks again

  2. Thank you. I've always wanted to tour a recycling center. I wish more people understood NO PLASTIC BAGS!

  3. Not sure why people continue to put recyclable material inside another plastic bag… misinformation is out there even with recycling! Also frustrating that companies are not forced to buy back their waste, would make recycling more profitable. Thank you for posting this!!

  4. Publix has bins at the front door to accept your plastic shopping bags for recycling. Also good to keep a few reusable cloth shopping bags with you and forgo the plastic bags altogether.

  5. John, this article was so insightful. Thank you! Lisa Mozloom