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Hauling your recycling to Jacksonville’s new bins? Here’s what happens to it.

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Claire Heddles
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WJCT News
Jason Graves, the division manager of Jacksonville's Republic Services recycling center, where all of the city's recycling ends up.

If you're going to the trouble of recycling your boxes and plastic bottles, don't foul it up.

People have been hauling piles of recycling to 15 drop-off spots since Jacksonville suspended curbside pickup two weeks ago, but some of it is just going into the landfill.

Food scraps can contaminate the boxes you're trying to recycle. Liquids can spoil recycled newspapers. And whatever you do, don't put it all in plastic bags — whether they're garbage bags or grocery bags.

“Even if it’s a bag of recycled goods, if it’s in a plastic bag, there’s a chance we’re gonna throw it away,” said Jason Graves, manager of Jacksonville’s Republic Services recycling center. “We can’t risk pulling it open and then letting garbage contaminate potentially good recycling."

The city suspended curbside recycling indefinitely to catch up on trash and yard waste pickup after almost 100,000 people filed formal complaints about trash pickup delays. In the meantime, city contractors are taking recycling from the 15 bins, mostly at city parks, to Jacksonville’s processing center twice daily.

Graves would not comment on whether people are recycling less since curbside pickup ended. “Not going into tonnage because it's so new in the process,” he said. But recycling experts say it's likely.

Rob Taylor, director of grants and community development at The Recycling Partnership, said suspending recycling pickup can lead to unexpected consequences.

“Toilet paper is made from recycled paper,” Taylor said. “When recycling programs are stressed and when people recycle less, it can exacerbate the kinds of issues like the toilet paper crisis that we experienced last year.”

To make sure recycling doesn't end up in the landfill, rinse plastic containers or metal cans out and put them in paper bags. Republic Service's recycling guide says no plastic bags, no food and no clothes. Flatten cardboard, and toss the greasy half of pizza boxes.

When recyclables get to the processing center, the usable portions are separated, sorted and wrapped into bales for paper mills and brokers to purchase.

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Claire Heddles
A pile of cardboard awaiting processing, next to sorted and baled plastics ready to be shipped at Republic Services recycling center in Jacksonville.

Machines and workers pull out all the bulky trash they can find in a first pass-through, then the recycling moves on to a cardboard separator. The recycling hits another screen, separating 3D items from paper and then goes to quality control and is sorted into color bottles, clear bottles, aluminum cans and hard plastics before it’s ready for companies like paper mills and recycling brokers to buy it up.

But those buyers don’t want it if it's dirty. One plastic trash bag, or milk left in a carton, could ruin a bin’s worth of recycling by leaking out onto other items. That’s why recycling processors say: When in doubt, throw it out.

The Jacksonville center has about 60 people working on the sorting line, Graves said, but he said he’s had trouble hiring staff in recent months.

On Thursday morning at A. Philip Randolph Heritage Park, the city’s four large recycling bins were pretty empty. Jacksonville resident George, who asked to be identified by first name only, said he’s making the 3-mile trek from his house to drop off recyclables because he got in the habit of sorting when pickup was curbside.

“They've got me started doing that, now telling me I don't have to do it, it's kind of appalling to me,” George said. “I want to continue to help the planet.”

About 59% percent of American households have access to curbside recycling, according to a 2020 report from the nonprofit The Recycling Partnership.

The local governments that typically foot the bill for those recycling programs have faced major stressors in recent years, including the Chinese government cracking down on the quality of recycling they’d purchase in 2018 and the COVID pandemic, according to Taylor, at The Recycling Partnership.

“The value of recyclable materials that recycling programs collect doesn't pay for the system, but it helps subsidize the cost of the system,” Taylor said. “Recycling is a public service. It costs money to operate public recycling systems.”

In Jacksonville, the city’s trash and recycling operates at a multimillion-dollar loss, according to city administrator Brian Hughes. He said the city had originally planned to restart curbside pickup within six months, but he told City Council last week that it could be even longer.

WJCT's Sydney Boles contributed to this report.