Tampa's largest recycling plant set to reopen after large fire caused by contaminants

A large fire forced six week shut down
Posted at 5:46 PM, May 17, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-17 18:20:33-04

TAMPA — ABC Action News has uncovered new information about the fire that shut down Tampa's largest recycling plant. We took our cameras behind the machines uncovering the one mistake that sparked the flames.

So many people recycle the wrong things that Waste Management Recycle Tampa is on a schedule. Eight times a day they shut down their gears so workers can fish out contaminants. That means plastic, clothing and even some weird items that obviously do not belong in a recycling plant.

Contaminated recycling is such a serious problem it forces the $27 million facility to come to a stop for a total of three hours every single day. Workers climb and struggle to pull out tangled wiring and plastic. These pauses are always planned. But no one planned the latest hiatus at WM Recycle Tampa.

"It was a very significant fire," said Melissa Baldwin, the community relations coordinator. "In the four years I've worked here I've never seen anything like it."

Nearly 100 workers evacuated as black smoke poured out. The cause is a suspected non-recyclable sparking against the gears. And just like that the plant producing 35 tons every hour came to a stop and stayed like that for six weeks. It even set the company back six figures to fix it.

"Plastic film, plastic bags. Those things can really damage the entire process," said Baldwin.

It's so bad about 30% of what they get are made up of these common culprits. While every recyclable from the City of Tampa ends up here, the fire forced them to ship their unprocessed items to other facilities and even to competitors.

We watched workers unclog seemingly harmless trash but sometimes what they find is a danger to both machine and human.

"Some of the crazier things we've gotten here, we have gotten guns, sticks of dynamite, machetes, tomahawks, you name it," she said.

Once they even got a non-live hand grenade.

Now this isn't usual but the common culprits are an hourly problem. While this expensive fire didn't touch our pocketbooks these workers warn bad recycling costs us all in the end. Workers advise a good rule of thumb is if there's any doubt toss it out.