Plastic bag recycling: How are we doing?

Those involved in the plastic bag issue -- how to handle the litter problem, whether the bags are a good use of resources in the first place -- are generally split along two lines.  Do we discourage use of the bags by taxing or banning them? Or do we encourage re-use of the bags by recycling them?

Industry, naturally, would like to see more recycling. But one thing that's always hampered their argument was that they don't really have a good metric for determining how many bags are actually recycled, and whether that number is increasing.

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Now, it looks as if they're working to sort that out.

The American Chemistry Council recently released its annual report on recycling of plastic film, the catch-all term that includes plastic bags, product wraps and commercial shrink film.

The report, developed by Moore Recycling Associates, Inc., found that the amount recycled rose  four percent in 2011, reaching one billion pounds.

Most of it -- 58 percent -- reentered the market in the U.S., as opposed to a foreign market, and this was largely due to a growth in the plastic and composite lumber industry, the report found.

But about those pesky bags.  Shoppers put them in the recycling bin in the grocery store, say, and think they might be easy to tally. But instead, they get mixed with everything else downstream. That would include the shrink wrap that grocery products get delivered in at the back of the store. 

This year, Moore tweaked the way it categorizes and counts things, and it was able to conclude that about 95.5 tons of plastic bags and sacks were recycled in 2011, a 19 percent increase over 2010.

What the report doesn't tell us is what percentage of all the plastic bags and sacks that were produced wound up being recycled.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency counts bags, too, in its analysis of municipal solid waste.  The figures for 2010 show that 3.9 million tons of plastic bags, sacks and wraps entered the waste stream that year, of which 450,000 tons -- or 11.5 percent -- were recycled. That compares to 9.4 percent in 2009.

So we've got 95.5 tons from the industry report, and 450,000 tons from the EPA. So clearly they're not both counting the same thing, or in the same way. Ugh.

A lot of these bags will tough to wrench free of the trash stream and put into the recycling stream because they're used as household trash can liners. Or to pick up after dogs. Or ... whatever. What can I say? They're handy. But I'm betting we can do better.

Efforts are under way in Philadelphia to revive a proposal to tax or ban bags. I'm not getting a read yet on whether organizers will get any traction.

Meanwhile, for those who use plastic bags instead of reusable bags, recycling the bags certainly tops tossing them in the trash.There are about 15,000 locations in the U.S. where you can do it.

As a reminder, here are some of the things you can put in those plastic bag recycling bins:

  • Grocery bags
  • Newspaper bags
  • Bread bags
  • Produce bags
  • Plastic retail bags (hard plastic and string handles removed)
  • Zip-lock bags (remove hard components)
  • Toilet paper, napkin and paper towel wraps
  • Dry cleaning bags
  • Case wrap (from, say, snacks or water bottles)
  • Furniture wrap
  • Electronic wrap
  • All empty, clean and dry bags labeled #2 or #4

Do NOT put in:

  • Cling wrap
  • Plastic bags contaminated with food
  • The "crinkly" plastic that, say, granola comes in
  • Biodegradable or compostable plastic bags

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