CLEARWATER, Fla. — Thousands of Clearwater residents sort through their trash and fill their recycle bins weekly, and those recycled materials are supposed to be shipped via tractor trailer from Clearwater to a recycling center in Tampa. But the I-Team found that is not always the case.
In August alone, the city collected 952 tons of recycled materials from Clearwater homes and businesses. However, more than 300 tons — or one-third of all that recycling — was dumped and burned at Pinellas County's incinerator.
Longtime residents and avid recycler Betsy Wood told us she had no idea.
“I believe they go over to Tampa and are properly disposed of,” Wood said.
We asked Earl Gloster, Director of Clearwater Solid Waste, why they burn hundreds of tons of recycling.
“In recent months we've experienced a high level of contamination,” Gloster said.
The city blames residents for throwing trash like wood, toys and plastic bags in with their recyclables. They have been sending contaminated loads to Pinellas County’s incinerator to be burned along with the trash. We also asked Gloster why Clearwater residents were not notified.
“We just didn't put that out there,” Gloster said.
But after we started asking questions, waste management bosses told us they started a new program to make sure fewer recyclables ended up in the incinerator.
We visited the city's recycling facility in early September and found seven solid waste staffers picking garbage out the recycling collected that morning.
Gloster said his staff would continue sorting recyclables to prevent past problems. Including two full semi-trucks of recyclables which were turned away from a recycling center in Ybor City because the load contained so much trash.
We went back three weeks later, and our cameras caught two city recycling trucks headed straight for the city's trash facility, a pit stop on the way to the incinerator.
We reached out to Clearwater again and the city says if recycling truck drivers can tell most of the collection is contaminated, they dump the whole load rather than sorting through it.
Solid waste bosses also defend incineration as an acceptable form of recycling because they say the plant generates electricity for about 40,000 homes. The city says it's working on a public awareness campaign to remind residents what exactly goes into their recycle bins.