How To Use Supermarkets for Recycling
By John Dorschner
Plastic bags — the evil that should never be in our recycling bins — can find a home at major supermarkets. So can quite a bit of other types of plastic and foam. But what happens then?
As with much of recycling, there is theory — and then there’s reality, which can get messed up because … well, because human beings are involved.
Publix and Winn-Dixie have explained to me how their bins worked. I’ve also talked to Trex, a large, publicly traded company that picks up the plastic bags — “film,” in the recycling lingo — and converts it into composite board used for decks, picnic tables and such.
But I’ve also wandered around Dade County and looked into the recycling receptacles at supermarkets. And well … that’s where things can get messy.
Both supermarket chains are proud of what they do. Southeastern Grocers, the parent of Winn-Dixie and Fresco y Mas, reports that it recycles 3.5 million pounds of plastic each year in partnership with Trex.
Publix boasts of even larger recycling numbers for 2021: 12,526 tons of mixed plastic, 6,516 tons of mixed paper, 273 tons of foam and 307,826 tons of cardboard.
LESSON 1: USE LESS
First lesson, of course: Use as few plastic bags as you can. Take reusable cloth bags to the store. Many Publix have prominent signs by the front entrance: “Don’t forget your bags. Let’s do good together.”
Of course, you’re still going to end up with a lot of film — the plastic that your bundle of toilet paper comes in, say, or the wrap around your three-pack of romaine lettuce.
As I’ve written before, plastic bags are a BIG problem for the systems where our city/county recycling trucks go. These centers are single-stream facilities of conveyor belts, gears and sorting wheels. Plastic bags clog the system and mess up everything. The Miami center run by Waste Connections stops the entire sorting process several times a day just to clear the bags out of the system. (See my story at xxxx on an inside look at a recycling facility.)
That’s where the supermarkets come in.
Winn-Dixies and Fresco y Mas (their Hispanic brand) are supposed to have recycling bins out front marked for “plastic bags.”
Publix is more ambitious: Most have three bins: Plastic, Paper and Foam. Some stores have two bins for Plastic, indicating that’s a popular recycling item.
Each Publix bin has specific labels. Plastic is for “soft plastics (#2 and #4), plastic bags, product overwrap, pharmacy bags and dry cleaning bags.” The bin clearly indicates it is NOT for “hard plastics, drinking bottles, rigid containers, clamshells, jugs, any items containing foods.”
Publix’s Paper Bin is for paper bags, newspapers, recipe cards and ad inserts. It’s NOT for “fast-food bags with food, cups and hardcover books.”
The Foam Bin “includes egg cartons, clean take-out trays, clean cups.” It is NOT for “paper or plastic egg cartons, take-out trays with food, cups with lids and straws, packing nuts.”
Recycling foam is a rarity — I myself have done a social media post falsely saying there was no market for Styrofoam. But for most serious recyclers, the crucial element is in the plastic film that our city/county recyclers don’t want.
The Publix website goes into more details about what’s acceptable: “Plastic packaging from toilet paper, napkins, paper towels, overwrap from shipping cases, Ziploc and other re-sealable bags (without the zipper), bread and produce bags, cereal bags (not the ones that come in a box), newspaper sleeves, ice bags, salt bags, wood-pellet bags, bubble wrap, air pillows, and plastic wrap.” Bubble wrap is a biggie for those of us who do a lot of online shopping.
For more details about Winn-Dixie accepts, see my next story, on the Trex company that takes the stuff from these stores.
DO-IT-YOURSELF: THE BEST SOLUTION
For dedicated recyclers, the advantage of supermarket bins is that you separate the stuff yourself. You can make sure only the correct plastic, say, goes into that bin. You’re being a bit like that Japanese village where residents carefully sort their materials into 34-plus recycling categories.
That’s much better than the single-stream recycling that dominates America — a mostly automated system that is less than perfect in sorting materials. And that’s after many careless residents don’t follow the fairly simple recycling rules: For Miami-Dade County recycling trucks, almost half the material is “contaminated,” meaning it ends up in the landfill.
NOW TO THE REALITY
I visited eight Winn-Dixies (plus one sister store, Fresco y Mas) and eight Publix.
The Publix all had three or four bins by the front entrance. Some of the Winn-Dixies had two bins for plastic bags (in green) and one for trash (in brown).
But I found no recycling bins at two Winn-Dixies (at NW 7th Avenue and 110th Street and SW 87th Avenue and 72nd Street) and one Fresco y Mas (near SW 87th Avenue and Coral Way.
A clerk at the NW 7th facility insisted there was indeed one outside the front door, but a colleague said: “No, we used to have one. But no more.”
I guessed a possible reason after I visited a Winn-Dixie in South Miami near SW 58th Avenue and 73rd Street. The two green recycling bins contained … well, just stuff, most of which had nothing to do with the plastic bags being sought:
A brown paper bag from Whole Foods (?!), a couple of plastic water bottles, scratch-off lottery cards, a paper cup with a plastic top, some paper receipts and a few plastic bags.
Though there was a brown receptible right next to them marked Trash, these recycling bins were contaminated so badly that the contents were best thrown in the garbage. No store employee was likely to spent time picking out the bits of plastic bag that were savable.
I can imagine a store manager, after experiencing this kind of crap for a while, might decide it’d be better just to get rid of the bins.
Why mess up a recycling bin with crap? I thought of that poster that cartoonist Walt Kelly did for 1970 Earth Day, with Pogo uttering: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
I found more of a mixed bag, as it were, at a Winn-Dixie on West Hallandale Beach Boulevard, just east of I-95. A large bin held plenty of plastic bags, but also a water bottle and shampoo bottle. Most Publix bins were cleaner, but one on Hallandale Boulevard, east of US 1, had one plastic bin stuffed with bags, while another contained a large Auto Zone jug.
In quite a few places, I saw empty bins or nearly so. Were they recently cleared by an employee, or a sign of consumer indifference?
At Publix, the plastic bins were used much more than the paper bins. The foam bins usually contained almost nothing.
Upscale neighborhoods generally had fuller plastic bins. At the ultra-fancy Winn-Dixie on tony Key Biscayne (complete with wine/coffee bar), the bins were stuffed with plastic bags. So was a Publix on NW 27th Avenue near Coral Way — near upscale Coconut Grove and a thoroughly middle-class Hispanic neighborhood. Not too far away, a Winn-Dixie at 3275 SW 22nd Street, near Coral Gables, had two bins filled with plastic. So did a Winn-Dixie in upscale Aventura at 204th Street and Biscayne Boulevard.
And finally, there’s my own Publix, in Miami Shores on Biscayne Boulevard near 90th Street. It has two plastic bins, and both are often stuffed with bags. There’s usually not much paper and almost no foam.
What really happens to all this material?
Some persons have posted answers on Reddit:
“I worked for a nicer grocery chain in NC (rhymes with Moe’s) and they used to throw away the plastic bags people were trying to recycle. Don’t know if it was true companywide or only at that one store, and don’t know if it is still how they do things as this was around 20 years ago now.”
Also: “When I worked at Piggly Wiggly… we chucked them into the regular trash compactor for years.”
And this: “I know for a fact Lowe’s food’s recycle vs trash bins make little difference. I’ve had management literally tell me this when I wanted to throw a plastic cup into the recycle bin and they told me it honestly doesn’t matter, as they throw it all away anyways.”
But consider this: “I know Food Lion collects them for Trex. They are picked up once a week. My class did a recycling competition through Trex and we had to drop them off at a Food Lion.”
Trex is a huge, publicly traded company, and it’s made a big business of using plastic bags — and other types of film — to build products. My next story will show what Trex is looking for — and what it does with what it gets.