Recycling Versus Wish-Cycling

Lee County Solid Waste launched “Recycle Smart – Five for The Cart” on July 1 to reduce the amount of trash in our recycling stream. “Non-recyclable material in carts increased from 9 to 15 percent over the last four years, with a corresponding disposal cost of roughly $25,000 per month,” explains Molly Schweers, Solid Waste Coordinator. “Large wheeled carts came out around that time to help Lee residents reach the statewide goal of 75% recycled by the year 2020, but unfortunately non-recyclables increased from an average of 655 tons monthly to over 1,100.”

A primary goal is to reduce or eliminate “Wish-Cycling.” Molly explains that “just because something is recyclable does not mean it is recyclable in your cart. ‘Wish-cyclers’ include extra items and hope for the best, but all this does is make your refuse the most expensive because we must collect, transport, sort, reject, load, transport again, then finally dispose of these materials.”

The Recycle Smart two-year campaign has two kickoffs: it began this July for our local population, then another push will occur in January 2017 for seasonals and tourists. “This will be crucial, as these people travel here from all over the nation and world, and every community recycles differently,” says Molly. “Things they do at home we cannot accept, and often vice-versa. Even if they know our system, recycling evolves.” Solid Waste will evaluate results quarterly, then refine its message in the second year based on those figures.

Recycle Smart is a Simple Message: “Five For The Cart”

Recycle Smart’s mission is to simplify its message by bringing it back to basics. “We recycle 5 items in the bins, along with yard waste and bulky objects like electronics stored outside the carts, and that is it,” relates Molly “If it is not trash, recyclables, or yard waste, it should not be put in the waste stream.” Lee County is not alone in this issue, as this is a national problem. “Ninety percent of all bins across the United States have trash in them. There is no reason for a silk tree in a wicker basket to be in your recycling cart!”

The five recyclable items are paper including junk mail, magazines, newspapers, and telephone books but not hard cover novels or shredded, wax, or soiled paper; metal cans of aluminum and steel including aluminum foil; cardboard without wax coating like on a milk carton; plastic containers number 1 through 7 but no Styrofoam or plastic bags; and glass bottles and jars that are green, brown, or clear. Molly reminds that “if you cannot recall this, check your recycling cart lid as all the information is right there!”

Despite this simplicity, Molly cautions that Solid Waste battles the same issues all the time. “Our sorters constantly go through the trash looking for recyclables, and this should be the other way around. When you mix relatively clean recyclables with disgusting garbage, like fouled diapers and animal waste, everything becomes garbage. Recycling is not for anything that decomposes.”

Molly emphasizes that Solid Waste is not a thrift shop! “Many times our customers conclude they have something someone else can use so they recycling it. If you want to donate something, do it through the proper agencies. Another common misconception is why bother to recycle because the county just burns everything anyhow and that is simply not true! Solid Waste sells at least 12 semi-trailer trucks of recyclables daily.”

Less Than Fantastic Plastic Bags

Plastic bags are by far the biggest nightmare, clogging and often closing down the plant. “Plastic gets caught in and wraps around in the machinery and conveyors, requiring repairs to pull out the bags,” says Molly. “This is true for pool covers and plastic film, even if it has a correct recycling number. Garden hoses, electric cords, Christmas lights – these ‘stringy things’ often shut down the entire operation.”

Molly understands that “people want to do the right thing but they also want to be neat and tidy as they do it, so they tie their recyclables up in a plastic trash bag, and that turns the entire thing into refuse at the highest-possible disposal cost.” If sorters come across clear plastic and can quickly ascertain recyclables, they rip it open and separate those; if however you place yours in a translucent or dark bag, everything inside automatically becomes garbage.

Solid Waste offers solutions and suggestions for remaining products:

Lee is the 4th best county recycling program in Florida. “We were often #1 over the past few years, trading places with Hillsborough County, and Palm Beach recently topped us but we expected that as they just opened a new waste facility. St. Pete and Pinellas County passed us as well, and that is a surprise. We will study them to see if we can incorporate any concepts.”

The Recycle Smart campaign includes short informational videos, a new logo and brochure, refrigerator magnets, one-on-one sessions, and increased visibility at community events, as well as an interactive quiz at to give residents and visitors immediate feedback on whether their choices pass the “recycle smart” test.

Lee County Solid Waste is a nationally-recognized enterprise system providing residents and businesses safe, affordable waste disposal and recycling services. It uses a waste-to-energy combustion process to create clean, renewable energy and single-stream recycling for material recovery. For more information call 239-533-8000 or see

The Lee County Solid Waste Division: There is no such thing as trash; everything is of value!