Reduce, reuse, ‘wishcycle:’ How Orange County residents can throw away bad recycling habits

Recycling rates increasing over last few years but not everything makes it to plant

A city of Orlando recycling container downtown. (Image: Homer Salcedo/WKMG)

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Orange County is empowering recycling residents to kick wasteful impulses to the curb.

Each week, residents will wheel their 95-gallon cart of unsorted recycling to the end of their driveways, waiting for the automated truck to take it away.

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But what happens when the truck leaves?

The accepted loads are transferred to a materials recovery facility outside the county, sorted by commodity type, crushed into bales and sold for remanufacturing.

The unaccepted loads are not as lucky.

While recycling throughout the county has been on the rise over the last three years, only a fraction of collected recycling escapes the frequently fated landfill. Of the 48,469 recycling tons collected so far this year, only around 17,771 tons were accepted, the latest Orange County Utilities statistics show.

“Unacceptable items in the recycling carts, which is what we’d call contamination, is a big issue and it’s something, you know, we’re always working to reduce,” said Jessica Kitt, senior maintenance coordinator for Orange County Utilities. “If there are too many unacceptable items in the load, it cannot be processed (and can be) damaging to the equipment, and you know, potentially the workers.”

Kitt and her team call this “wishcycling.”

“Recycling is done with good intentions. You know, people want to recycle and they want to recycle as much as they can. So, you know, they put things in there in the hopes that it can be recycled, but in reality, it’s actually damaging to the whole process,” Kitt continued.

The biggest “wishcycling” offenders? Plastic bags.

“So the number one issue is our plastic bags, film and wrap, and one of the reasons it’s so confusing and it’s the number one, unacceptable material that we see ... Because it is recyclable,” Kitt said. “You know you can take it back to your local supermarket to recycle it, but unfortunately, it cannot be accepted in the blue with recycled carts.”

She also sees a lot of hoses, wires and string lights living in the carts, all of which can get tangled up in sorting equipment and can potentially shut down the recycling facility.

To combat these common problems, Kitt implores residents to “Think 5.”

The catchphrase refers to the five materials accepted in recycling carts, including plastics labeled No. 1 through No. 5 (bottles, jugs and tubs), metal cans (tin, steel and aluminum), glass bottles and jars, carboard and most paper products.

Orange County Utilities, which services more than 22,000 homes, continues to raise awareness and empower residents to practice proper recycling techniques through quarterly newsletters, tagging programs and countywide events.

“(We have a) Recycling Quality Improvement Program, which is a tagging program, so we actually go out to a certain number of addresses and we visit (those homes), you know, over four consecutive weeks so that we can check the contents of the (recycling) cart and we can give specific personalized feedback on how each resident can improve,” Kitt said.

So far, the county has tagged more than 115,000 homes, which Kitt said has led to less contaminated carts.

According to data collected by the county’s utilities department, residents went from recycling 62,000 tons in 2018 to 67,000 tons in 2020.

“So really it starts at the curb ... we want to ... empower residents to know how to do it correctly and be confident in what to put in the cart,” Kitt said. “We want to reach everybody.”

Right now, the county is gearing up to go green for America Recycles Day on Nov. 15. To learn more about recycling in Orange County, click here.

About the Author:

Samantha started at WKMG-TV in September 2020. Before joining the News 6 team, Samantha was a political reporter for The Villages Daily Sun and has had freelance work featured in the Evansville Courier-Press and The Community Paper. When not writing, she enjoys travelling and performing improv comedy.