May 9, 2018 Recycling Written by Greentumble
Plastic bag recycling
Plastic bags are made from oil,

natural gas or, as in the case, of bioplastics, plant material. Pressure is added to break the carbon and hydrogen atoms, chemicals are added to form pellets. The material is heated to a melting point so that it can be poured into a die the shape of a plastic bag. 

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, as many as one trillion plastic bags are used worldwide annually. Although many countries have banned plastic bags altogether beginning with Bangladesh in 2002, and many others have levied taxes to discourage use [2], we continue our thoughtless and rampant use in the United States, the most recent estimate of our use five years ago was over 100 billion plastic bags annually [3].

Plastic bags can be recycled and made into products such as natural-wood-looking decking. As of 2014 there were 1800 businesses in the United States that handling or reclaiming plastic bags [4].

True, re-using plastic is simply delaying the inevitable demise in the landfill as long as we have only our present technology to rely upon, but still, making a composite lumber deck contributes less to warming our climate than deforestation. It will not rot and attract termites or need replacement. Ever.

How do we recycle plastic bags?

Plastic bags can be recycled, but not with other recyclables.

Plastic bags are not accepted at most municipal pickup sites and they are not picked up in curbside bins. While most municipalities are required by their respective states to recycle a certain percentage of solid waste, the type of materials selected for recycling are generally not specified. 

The market governs what materials, plastic, glass, aluminum or cardboard are profitable to recycling facilities and the municipal government makes its decisions accordingly. China’s recent ban on accepting the import of recycling [5] is dramatically curbing the world’s options for dealing with its waste and has already trickled down to municipal recycling centers in the United States, many of them no longer accepting plastic or glass [6].

Why plastic bags cannot be placed in the curbside recycling bins?

Plastic bags are not recyclable with other plastics because they jam the conveyor belts and get into and clog every part of the recycling equipment imaginable, causing frequent and costly shutdowns when a plastic bag, missed in the sorting stage, gets caught in the machinery [7].

Recycling requires a certain type of equipment to break down the plastic and mold it into an end product. 

It is estimated that between 5 and 15 percent of plastic bags are recycled annually [8]

Accordingly, plastic bag recycling facilities are, as they say, few and far between and transportation to one could be expensive. A municipality typically does not have the budget to include the recycling of plastic bags in its waste management program.

Why you should recycle plastic bags

The industrial revolution of the 1880s changed life on earth and popular culture has not caught on to the far-reaching consequences of the changes. Things were pretty quiet before automated manufacturing. 

A middle-class woman had two, maybe three pretty dresses at any given time, not twenty or thirty. She had one pair of dress shoes and possibly a hair ribbon she wore until the end of its useful life. A house did not need a lot of storage closets. Life for many meant an afternoon filled with birdsong, perhaps a visit from a friend, the arrival of a letter, harvesting the garden for dinner, maybe killing a chicken.  

Today, we seldom go five minutes without availing ourselves of a commercial product: a technological gadget, a toiletry, a cooking pot, or a vehicle.

In fact, the variety of consumer goods now available is staggering and most of it comes in an abundance of packaging (in fact, about one-third of an average dump is packaging material) [9] and then is stuffed into a plastic bag at the checkout counter.

Most Americans don’t think twice, looping the plastic handles over their arms and heading to the car. We use a plastic bag for such a short time, from the grocery store to the car, and from the car to the kitchen, possibly re-using it once for dog poop or the bathroom trash liner. Probably less than an hour in total. And then it’s on to a landfill adding to our millions and millions of cubic miles of solid waste.  

In fact, the United States sends the most trash to landfill in the world, a staggering 1,609 pounds per person per year. Five percent of the people are generating 40 percent of the world’s waste [10].

Or perhaps the wind will carry the bag elsewhere.

Either way, we don’t think of it again…

Some states like New York and New Jersey require large stores to offer plastic bag recycling. Many large retail chains like Kroger and Lowes are implementing initiatives designed to consider the environmental impact of every decision. Large retail chains already have a distribution channel in place and can easily collect the bags when they deliver shipments, transporting them in bulk to a plastic bag recycling facility or to a port for an overseas customer.

What plastic can be dropped off at the recycling bin for plastic bags?

Clean high-density polyethylene film, or Number 2 and low-density polyethylene or Number 4. 

Examples include:

  • plastic shopping bags
  • bread bags
  • Ziploc bags
  • produce bags
  • dry cleaning bags
  • popped bubble wrap
  • product wrapping such as the plastic that covers a twenty-four pack of water bottles

You should not put in:

  • pre-washed salad bags
  • chip bags
  • six-pack rings
  • candy bar wrappers [11].

It is vitally important to drop off only clean bags. The bags easily absorb oil and other contaminants. China’s decision to restrict waste imports for recycling was due to its own environmental concerns. The toxins from contaminated materials were being released during the recycling process into its air and water, contributing to China’s public health crisis [12].

The current state of plastic bag recycling in the United States

It is clear from China’s experience that a change in consciousness is in order. The Plastic Bag Alliance (formally the APBA, or American Progressive Bag Alliance) is fighting back with false statistics [13] and the majority of Americans have a bah-humbug attitude about recycling in general, let alone making the extra effort of returning bags to a store. 

Overall, the recycling rate in the United States is 34.6 percent, the midwest and south counterbalancing more progressive regions like San Francisco which has banned the use of plastic bags and has an overall recycling rate of eighty percent [14].

Only one percent of plastic bags used in the United States are recycled [15].

In general, people do not begin to grasp the consequences of the thoughtless acceptance of the bag at the checkout counter, the demand encouraging plastic manufacturers to make more, nor does anyone consider the disposal problems inherent in accepting it. It is by and large, either a thoughtless action or performed perfunctorily in the conviction that the next generation has got this one in the bag. It will solve this problem.

A possible solution to this mindlessness is creating the awareness that we are in fact leaving a very large problem, with myriad detrimental consequences to our children.  A problem they will doubtless struggle with resources to address along with all of their other societal problems.  And all of this for something we did that was entirely unnecessary.

Help create an awareness with the simple facts through spreading the word in the best way you know how and routinely use reusable bags.