How to Recycle Plastic Bags
Plastic bags are everywhere. You see them on store shelves, full of every imaginable product. You see rolls of them every few feet in the produce section. The checker tucks whatever you purchased inside a plastic bag or bubble wrap (unless you requested paper or no bag at all). At home, you put your trash in big plastic bags and drop them in cans that are emptied into big trucks on trash day. Then it all goes to a landfill, an incinerator, or who knows where?
But not everyone is as tidy as you are. Other people’s plastic bags are blowing along the edges of freeways, clogging the storm drains, and killing the animals that encounter them in the wild. We all know this is wrong, but is carefully adding discarded plastic bags to the waste stream any better than littering? Not really. So what can we do about it?
Will residential recyclers take plastic bags?
Your curbside recycling cans and bins probably include plastic on the list of acceptable materials, but this invitation doesn’t extend to plastic bags. According to the PBS video “Why you shouldn’t recycle plastic bags at home” plastic bags interfere with the sorting process necessary for single-stream recycling (which includes your curbside pickup services). There’s no easy way to determine what kind of plastic these bags are made from, they often get tangled in the sorting equipment, and just a few unnoticed plastic bags can contaminate an entire bale of paper, which means that it can’t be resold. Wet or dirty bags are too labor-intensive to dry and clean. Workers simply throw them in the trash, even if they contain materials that could be easily recycled. While it seems counterintuitive, recycling companies urge their customers to discard plastic bags at home because it makes the entire recycling process more efficient.
Can you recycle plastic bags?
Stepping away from plastic bags for a moment, let’s talk about plastic itself. This stuff is easy to manufacture, and that’s why there’s so much of it in our everyday lives and our waste stream. The good news is that plastic can be recycled. Mike Biddle, founder of MBA Polymers, describes garbage heaps full of discarded durable goods as “above-ground mines,” vast tracts of useful materials just waiting to be sorted and refined. He says that while over 90% of discarded metals are recovered and reused, less than 10% of plastics get that kind of attention. Biddle calls the sorting and separating of plastics “the last frontier of recycling,” and in his TED talk “We can recycle plastic” he walks us through a re-manufacturing process for plastic waste that ends up producing virtually the same material as virgin, first-generation plastic.
The bad news, however, is that plastic recycling is expensive, and the low return on investment discourages most recyclers from taking it on despite the ultimate savings on petroleum, which is where plastic comes from in the first place.
Energy from Waste (EfW)
Petroleum, for better or worse, also happens to be one of the world’s principal energy sources. So why can’t we harness the unused energy in the millions of tons of plastic in our waste stream? In fact, many people are advocating for the Energy from Waste (EfW) model, although it has its negatives as well as positives.
GreenCitizen partners with Covanta, an industrial waste management company that annually converts about 21 million tons of waste into power for over one million homes. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that every ton of municipal solid waste processed by EfW operations is reducing greenhouse gas emissions by one ton. This includes diverting methane from landfills, reducing new fossil fuels burned to generate electricity, and recovering metals for recycling.
The downside of EfW is that incinerating plastic generates a lot of carbon dioxide (CO2) and, if done incorrectly, also dioxins, acid gases, and heavy metals. Additionally, EfW facilities are expensive to build, and few people would choose to have one in their neighborhood. According to National Geographic, however, these problems might be addressed through pyrolysis, an emerging technology that melts shredded plastic at lower temperatures, eliminating toxic gases from the process and generating much less CO2 while also producing diesel fuel and a new range of durable plastics. But pyrolysis is an expensive process that’s still being explored, so widespread use isn’t on the immediate horizon.
What about compostable or biodegradable plastic bags?
Maybe you’ve heard about bags made from types of plastic that are better for the environment. This sounds too good to be true, and unfortunately, it probably is. Compostable plastic bags, while made from materials like polylactide (PLA) which are derived from fermented plant starch, must be processed at commercial composting facilities. Since many regions of the world don’t have access to such facilities, PLA-type plastics generally end up in landfill, where they present many of the same problems as petroleum-based plastics.
Smithsonian Magazine reports on a study at the U.K.’s University of Plymouth in which researchers tested the limits of five plastic bags — conventional, compostable, biodegradable, and two types of oxo-biodegradable bags (not requiring microorganisms) — under a variety of conditions. After three years of observation, the compostable bag left in a marine environment was the only one to completely degrade. All the others retained their form, whether they’d been immersed in seawater, buried in soil, or left in direct sunlight, and most of those were still able to carry a standard load of groceries. In the conclusion to their study, the researchers suggested, “Perhaps durability in the form of a bag that can and is reused many times presents a better alternative to degradability.”
Alternatives to plastic bags
Given the difficulty in getting rid of plastic bags, the best solution is to simply stop using them. It’s not that hard. Humans were creating and using bags for millennia before the invention of plastic, so there are plenty of tried and true alternatives.
- Cloth bags
- Waxed cloth bags
- Waxed paper bags
- Mesh bags
- Paper bags
- Silicone bags
- Reusable plastic containers
Plastic Bag Dryers
Even if you stopped bringing new plastic bags into your life today, you’d probably still have a big stash of them somewhere in your home. Whether you decide to reuse or recycle them (see below), they have to be clean and dry. Soiled or sticky plastic bags, while disgusting, are easy enough to clean. It’s plastic, after all, so water and dish soap usually get the job done. But the real test of patience and creativity is drying them, because rolling up or folding wet plastic just invites mold. Air-drying is best, and that means committing to one or more days of hanging your bags on a drying rack. You’ll need table or counter space, low humidity, and minimal breeze. Drying systems are fun to invent, but here are some products actually designed for drying plastic bags: https://amzn.to/2mqSuDD
Where can I recycle plastic bags?
Some places, such as grocery stores, will accept clean, dry plastic bags for recycling. Here are just a few examples in the San Francisco Bay Area:
Outside the San Francisco Bay Area
For locations of plastic bag recyclers near you, please consult the Green Directory, a nationwide search engine for recycling centers. Just click on “Green Directory” at the top of this page and then enter “plastic bags” and your zip code to find the drop-off locations closest to you. Our Green Directory can find recycling centers for many household items.
Make a Personal Commitment
GreenCitizen is continually inspired by the work of Beth Terry, whose book Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too chronicles one person’s ongoing experiment of living a plastic-free life in a plastic-infused society. In her TEDx talk “GreatPacificGarbagePatch,” she presents her rejection of all things plastic through a compelling list titled “8 Reasons Personal Change Matters.”
So now you know the right answer the next time a cashier asks you, “Paper or plastic?”
Alan Lipton, GreenCitizen’s writer/editor, firmly believes in the company’s mission to make every day Earth Day. His background in educational nonprofits, health literacy podcasts, experiential marketing, and storytelling helps him shape GreenCitizen’s message. Alan also writes fiction and songs, performs music at farmers’ markets and open mics, and battles unwanted vegetation in the yard.