Wonky Wednesday | On plastic recycling, read between the lines

plastic bags
Despite plastic industry claims, these bags are not being recycled.

The delaying tactics and last-gasp arguments made by the plastic industry can be breathtaking, as they work to defend their increasingly indefensible product. Among the industry’s favorite arguments is that plastic bags are recyclable. They try hard to seize the high ground and assert that their opponents can’t really be against recycling, can they?

But when it comes to plastic bags, Save The Bay’s research strongly suggests that almost none of this plastic is being recycled, let alone recycled into more plastic bags. When the plastic industry says “we are recycling plastic bags,” what they appear to actually mean is “we are spending a ton of money to process this stuff and send the film to a Chinese company that allegedly makes bags.” See, for example, this myth-busting information:

Many plastic bags collected for recycling are wastefully shipped to overseas processing facilities. According to a 2007 American Chemistry Council report, the US exports 57% of its postconsumer recovered film to China (25% of which consists of plastic bags, contained under the blanket term “mixed film”) where there once were “thousands” of plastic processing centers. However, when the economic downturn happened in late 2008, many of these Chinese plastic processors went out of business. Bottom line: there is a glut of this material that is not getting recycled, leaving material recovery facilities with bales of collected recyclable plastic with no one to sell it to.

Much of the talk about recycling plastic is aimed at making you, the consumer, feel better when you throw away your used container. But don’t assume that because you put something in the blue recycle bin that it doesn’t still end up in a landfill. Here is one plastic handler’s checklist for which bulk materials they accept for recycling:

  • Yes–clean HDPE grocery bags, retail bags, dry cleaner bags; pallet stretch film; LDPE merchandise over wrap shrink film
  • No–PVC or PVDC (Saran) films (meat wrap is PVC)
  • No–moisture – dry bales only
  • No–trash, paper or corrugated materials inside bales (attached paper labels ok)
  • No–strapping twine or tape (within the bale)
  • No–wood, broken pallets
  • No–polystyrene, polyurethane foamed, polypropylene
  • No–PETE trays
  • No–plastic bottles
  • No–oil or grease
  • No–hazardous materials, medical wastes, or packages of these products
  • No–metal
  • No–food or food packaging
  • No–produce packaging

That doesn’t look too easy for businesses to figure out.

When it comes to food packaging, the fact is that plastic recycling is complicated and filled with enormous waste. Save The Bay is focused on banning single-use plastics that customers use to hold or transport food. All the evidence suggests that these are NOT being recycled; see the list above (“No-moisture; No-grease; No-food”).

Our opponents’ effort to wrap themselves in a green veneer by talking about recycling turns out to be as thin and disposable as a single-use bag.

3 thoughts on “Wonky Wednesday | On plastic recycling, read between the lines

  1. You’re absolutely right to say that recycling plastics is complicated and your comments re: plastic bag recycling are spot on. However, because so much of the marketing of recyclable materials in still conducted based on the relationship between individuals who collect materials and those who market them, it’s impossible to make generalized comments re: the recycling rigid plastics. There are recycling programs collecting these single-use plastics and recycling them. I hate to see the indictment of all programs for not recycling rigid plastics when, in fact, some are getting them to recycling markets and the materials are getting re-manufactured into new products.

    1. Thanks Paul. Good point, and we want to emphasize that the post is about plastic bag recycling.

  2. One of the most relevant reports is CA’s Annual Statewide Recycling Rate Report. Since CA has mandated grocers offer collection bins for plastic bag recycling, one would think our recycling rate would be good, but the 2009 report shows a collection rate of only 3% of what was actually distributed. Report is available on calrecycle dot ca dot gov.

    Actually, I always think that mandated collection at grocery stores is a bit counter-intuitive (although necessary as commingling plastic bags into regular curbside recycling was problematic) – recycling at the store means you are supposed to *remember* to bring the bags back to the store to recycle them – why not just *remember* to bring your reusable bags?

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