Why are plastic bags a problem?

Note: Some local programs do accept plastic bags and film. If so, great! Be sure to follow local instructions. BUT, many programs DO NOT accept plastic bags and film. Here’s why and what to do. 

Let’s start by saying that reusable bags are always preferable over plastic ones and reduce waste, but sometimes plastic bags end up coming home with you anyway. Then you might ask, “If plastic bags are recyclable, why can’t they go into home recycling carts and bins?” We hear this question a lot. At a Materials Recovery Facility (or MRF), all of the recycling is mixed together. However, manufacturers who need plastic bottles don’t want cardboard and paper makers don’t want glass, so everything has to be separated by type.

Years ago, most of this work was done by hand at the MRFs. Workers stood at a sorting line and things moved by them on a conveyor.  They pulled off the bottles, cans and paper and put them into separate bins.

Today, MRFs receive a large amount of material every day—too much for workers to pull off a conveyor. So now machines do a lot of the work. One of those machines is called a “star screen,” which has fast-spinning, jagged wheels that make cardboard and paper surf to the top to one sorting area and allow bottles and jugs to drop down to a different sorting area. Plastic bags get wrapped around these spinning screens, which either keeps them from working correctly or breaks them. (Think about what happens when a string wraps itself around the beater bar on a vacuum cleaner.) Often, the machines at a MRF have to be turned off so that workers can unwind and cut away the plastic bags. When the machines are turned off, everything stops at the recycling plant. That’s no good!

Unless your local program tells you otherwise, plastic bags and other plastic film, like the wraps on cases of water bottles or paper towels, shouldn’t go in the bin with your other recyclables. However, they can be recycled if they are collected separately. This is actually very easy. Use one bag to collect empty bags and plastic film at home. When your bag is full, take it to a local drop-off site if your community has one, or to a grocery or retail store like Kohl’s, Lowe’s Home Improvement, Target or Walmart. These stores have collection boxes that are usually near the front of the store or by the customer service desk.

For more details, check out What to do with plastic bags and film.

Photo credit: Mukhina1 | iStock | Getty Images Plus

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