How Mixed Recycling Works In Pinellas County

Have you ever wondered, “what happens to my recyclables after I place them in my recycling bin?” Below, you will learn about how recyclables are collected in Pinellas County, where they are taken locally for processing, how they are sold to manufacturers to be made into new products and how consumers play a key role in this process by buying products made from recycled content.

The Recycling Loop

Recycling is a series of steps which create a loop (the recycling loop). There are four primary steps within the recycling loop: collection, processing, manufacturing and buying recycled. For an item to truly be recycled, the loop must be closed.

Graphic of the recycling loop including collection, processing, manufacturing and buying recycled.


Graphic of a recycling collection bin

What to Recycle

The recycling process starts with you placing the right items in your bin. No matter where you recycle in Pinellas County, if you follow the Recycle Guide, you’ll be recycling right!

Only the items listed on the front cover of the Recycle Guide are universally recyclable in Pinellas County: glass bottles & jars, plastic bottles & jugs, metal food & beverage cans, cartons and paper & cardboard.

According to the 2020 Municipal Recyclable Materials Composition Study, the composition of collected mixed recyclables in Pinellas County by percent of weight are:

  • 20.4% glass
  • 9.1% plastic bottles & jugs
  • 3.6% metal food & beverage cans
  • 44.6% paper and cardboard (newspaper, cardboard, mixed recyclable paper, cartons (cartons make up 0.5%))

For the full countywide composition and contamination rate, view the 2020 Municipal Recyclable Materials Composition Study and see page 13, Table 3-2.

How Collection Works

In Pinellas County, garbage and recycling collection services are managed independently by municipalities (incorporated areas) and County-licensed private haulers (unincorporated areas). Pinellas County does not offer garbage or recycling collection service except in the east Lealman community. Visit Collection: Garbage and Recycling for more information.

The primary role of the Pinellas County Department of Solid Waste is to manage the Solid Waste Disposal Complex which includes a Waste-to-Energy (WTE) Facility and landfill.

Flow chart showing how garbage and recycling collection works in Pinellas County

Recyclables are also collected at recycling drop-off centers. Recycling drop-off centers are located throughout the county and are available to residents and visitors free of charge. These centers are managed by Pinellas County and its municipalities. View this map of recycling drop-off centers to find the center closest to you.

Image of a recycling drop-off center container


Contamination is any material that is not accepted in your curbside recycling program, such as plastic bags or liquid and food residue. Contamination can damage equipment, endanger staff, and make quality recyclables unusable.

Based on our study that was conducted in October 2020, the contamination rate of recyclables collected in the County was 18.8% by weight. That means that one in five items by weight should not have been placed in mixed recycling.

See image below for items that do not belong and are some typical examples of contamination in mixed recycling.

Graphic depicting items that should not be placed in your recycle bin
Image of items that should not be placed in mixed recycling bins, such as plastic bags or bagged recycling, clothing, yard waste, foam packaging products, paper towels, tissues or napkins, and wires, cords or hoses


Graphic of the recyclable materials sorting process

Recyclable materials are collected by a truck and taken to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF pronounced “MuRF”) to be sorted into various groups of materials, sold to end users and then turned into new products.

Local Material Recovery Facilities

Municipalities and private haulers transport collected recyclable materials to local, privately owned and operated MRFs.

Image of recyclables being loaded off of a truck onto a MRF tipping floor
Recyclables are unloaded from a tractor-trailer onto the tipping floor at a local MRF. It’s called a “tipping” floor because materials are “tipped” from the transport vehicle onto the floor

There are five major MRFs in the Tampa Bay Area:

  • One in St. Petersburg, owned and operated by Waste Connections
  • One in Clearwater, owned and operated by Recycling Services of Florida
  • One in Tampa, owned and operated by Waste Management with a transfer station in Clearwater
  • One in Sarasota, owned and operated by Waste Pro, with a transfer station in Clearwater
  • One in Lakeland, owned and operated by Republic Services of Florida, with a transfer station in Tampa

Sometimes municipalities or private haulers will use transfer stations before transporting materials to a transfer station or MRF. A transfer station is a holding place or a hub for recyclables. They are used to combine materials and make transportation to a MRF more efficient and cost-effective.

The Department of Solid Waste does not own or operate a MRF. The main role of the Department of Solid Waste is to manage the county’s garbage as a resource at the Solid Waste Disposal Complex. Join us for a tour to learn about our vision of zero waste to landfill by 2050 and why it’s important that we create less waste.

Municipalities (incorporated areas) and licensed haulers (unincorporated areas) collect recyclables and deliver them to a MRF for processing. Some municipalities contract with a private hauler for both collection and processing.

If you live in a municipality, see this table below for information about where your city/town takes your recyclable material*.

Municipality Hauler Transfer Station or MRF
Belleair Clearwater Waste Management/Waste Connections
Belleair Beach Waste Management Waste Management
Belleair Bluffs Waste Management Waste Management
Belleair Shore Waste Connections Waste Connections
Clearwater Clearwater Waste Management/Waste Connections
Dunedin Waste Pro Waste Pro
Gulfport Gulfport Waste Connections (curbside) / Recycling Services of Florida (drop-off)
Indian Rock Beach Waste Connections Waste Connections
Indian Shores Waste Connections Waste Connections
Kenneth City Waste Pro Waste Pro
Largo Largo Waste Management
Madeira Beach Waste Pro Waste Pro
North Redington Beach Waste Pro Waste Pro
Oldsmar Coastal Waste and Recycling Recycling Services of Florida
Pinellas Park Waste Management Waste Management
Redington Beach Waste Connections Waste Connections
Redington Shores Waste Connections Waste Connections
Safety Harbor Safety Harbor Recycling Services of Florida
Seminole Waste Pro Waste Pro
South Pasadena Waste Connections Waste Connections
St. Petersburg St. Petersburg Waste Connections
St. Pete Beach Waste Connections Waste Connections
Tarpon Springs Waste Management Waste Management
Treasure Island Waste Pro (single-family residential) / Conex Recycling (multi-family residential) Waste Pro (single-family residential) / Republic Services of Florida (multi-family residential)

*This table was updated on 04/24/23.

If you live in an unincorporated area, see the table below for information about where your private hauler takes your recyclables*.

Hauler Transfer Station or MRF
Coastal Waste and Recycling Waste Management
Solar Sanitation Waste Management
Waste Connections Waste Connections
Waste Management Waste Management
Waste Pro Waste Pro

*This table was updated on 04/24/23.

Recyclables that are collected at county-managed drop-off locations are taken to Recycling Services of Florida.

How Recyclable Materials are Sorted

MRFs use machines to sort recyclables by physical properties such as weight, shape, size and magnetism. Because all materials are placed in one bin during collection (mixed recycling), recyclables need to be separated into bales of each material type before they can be sold to manufacturers.

Image of MRF worker removing contamination from a conveyor belt
Evette removes contamination amongst recyclables from a conveyor belt at a MRF

MRF employees pull out contamination from recyclables from a belt that is moving at a speed of three feet per second. MRF employees focus on removing materials that can damage equipment down the line – it’s impossible to remove all contamination. While personal protective equipment is donned and safety precautions are followed, contamination and hazardous items can endanger staff.

Video of sorting machinery at a MRF
Machinery at a MRF separates materials by weight, shape and size. For example, paper and cardboard are lighter and “float” to the top of this conveyor. Note the plastic bags tangled on the equipment

MRF equipment quickly rotate to separate heavier products like glass containers from lighter products like cardboard, paper, and plastic bottles. This equipment easily gets tangled with contamination like plastic bags.

Image of MRF employees removing tanglers, a common contaminant, from sorting equipment
Workers at a MRF cut plastic bags, clothing, and wires off equipment

In this image, plastic bags, cords, and wires get tangled in the machinery at MRFs. As a result, workers use box cutters to remove contamination from the star screens. Contamination increases recycling costs and degrades the quality of materials, reducing the ability of the materials to be recycled. Help contribute to the success of recycling programs by reviewing what can and cannot be recycled in your local program.

“MRF glass,” or glass and other small items, in a holding bay at a MRF
Close-up of MRF glass which needs to be further processed due to the high amount of contamination

MRF glass is transported to and cleaned by a secondary processor after it leaves a MRF where it is cleaned and separated by color into clear, green and brown stockpiles. Cleaned glass is transported to manufacturers to be made into new products such as new glass bottles or fiberglass.

After sorting, materials are baled, stored and marketed to end users.

Bales of plastic jugs, plastic bottles, metal cans and paper and cardboard stored at Waste Connections’ MRF in St. Petersburg.


Graphic of items made from recycled materials

Recyclables are sold to manufacturers to be made into new products.

The Glass Recycling Process

Producing new glass products made from recycled glass takes 30% less energy than producing glass from raw materials (sand). Glass is used to make fiberglass and glass containers. Glass never wears out and can be recycled infinitely.

Sarasota, Florida is home to a glass recycler (Strategic Materials) who cleans MRF glass and sends it to northern Florida and southern Georgia to be made into new materials, such as fiberglass and glass containers.

Click the image below to watch the NPR Planet Money video: Secrets From The Recycling Plant: How A Used Bottle Becomes A New Bottle (3:09 min.)

The Paper and Cardboard Recycling Process

Mixed paper can be recycled five to seven times to make new paper products.

The video below explains how paper and cardboard recycling works.

How Does Recycling Actually Work? (2:12 min.). Video Credit: American Forest & Paper Association

The Metal Recycling Process

Recycling aluminum cans saves 95% of the energy that is needed to make aluminum from its virgin source. Aluminum cans are 100% recyclable and there is no limit to how many times they can be recycled. Around 75% of the aluminum made is still in circulation.

How Are Aluminum Cans Recycled? (6:19 min.). Video Credit: DCODE by Discovery

The Plastic Recycling Process

Recycling plastic bottles reduces total energy consumption by 79% compared to making this plastic out of virgin materials. Recycled PET can be used to make fiber for clothing & carpets, food and non-food bottles, take-out containers, and fill for furnishings.

Located in Englewood, Florida, the Recycled Plastic Factory uses recycled plastic containers to make furniture that local municipalities and businesses can purchase.

The National Waste & Recycling Association’s (NWRA) article “Dispelling Plastic Recycling Myths” states that plastic bottles and jugs are recyclable and are being recycled. This article supports Pinellas County’s list of recyclable materials, which includes plastic bottles and jugs. For example, 29.1% of PET bottles (i.e., plastic water bottles), 29.3% of natural HDPE bottles (i.e., milk jugs), and 18.1% of colored HDPE (i.e., laundry detergent bottles) were recycled in 2018, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent report. The NWRA is a trade association that represents private waste and recycling companies; its members are the companies that are the sorting and marketing recyclable materials.

NAPCOR PET Recovery (1:45 min.). Video Credit: National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR)

Buying Recycled

Graphic of shopping cart with items made with recyclable materials

When you buy products that are made with recycled materials, you are recycling and closing the recycling loop. This increases the demand for products made with recycled materials. Visit the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides as a resource for the truth in advertising.

Examples of products made from recycled materials include:

  • Paper napkins, paper towels, and toilet tissue
  • Writing papers, greeting cards and envelopes
  • Paperboard packaging (such as cereal, cake and cracker boxes)
  • Reusable cloth bags made from plastic bottles
  • Outdoor rugs made from plastic bottles and jugs
  • Glass bottles and jars
  • Metal food and beverage cans
Aluminum can
Aluminum beverage can
Outdoor rug
Outdoor rug

Additional Resources

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