Americans have grown to love plastic bags. I did the first time I saw them in a grocery store.
No one knew the environmental problems they’d cause. Now that they’re everywhere, what can we do about them?
For years I had either had to take groceries home on the bus or walk back home with them. I needed everything to fit in one bag. With plastic bag, I could finally carry two or three in each hand.
They’re so convenient. But like many conveniences, they come with hidden costs. For openers, plastic never degrades in nature. So it lasts about forever. It just breaks in to smaller particles. Each size causes its own problems.
What not to do with plastic bags
We’ve all seen plastic bags littering our neighborhoods. They look ugly. They can harm or even kill animals. They get into streams, where they cause or worsen flooding. They constitute much of the plastic waste that accumulates in oceans.
At least when we put plastic bags in the trash, they don’t blow around as litter. But our landfills are precious and non-renewable resources. Plastic bags take a lot of space. Once a landfill reaches its designed capacity, a nearby replacement is nearly impossible—both politically and geologically.
So should we recycle plastic bags? Yes and no.
They don’t belong in the recycling container you put out at the curb. The truck that collects your recycling will take it to a materials recovery facility. The sorting equipment there relies on rotating machinery.
Plastic bags, table clothes, and other kinds of plastic film become entangled in the rotators. Employees must stop the line several times a day to remove it. Sometimes the plastic film breaks expensive parts of the equipment. So at the first work station in the facility, workers try to remove it by hand.
Whatever makes it all the way through the system contaminates whatever bale it winds up in. Companies that buy sorted and baled recyclables expect some contamination. But they will return bales and demand a refund if they contain too much of the wrong materials.
So should we just ban plastic bags? No.
Plastic bag bans ban only plastic shopping bags. They don’t ban plastic table cloths, for example. They don’t ban bags provided in produce departments or bags used to package products from bread to cotton balls.
Bag bans do little to solve problems with plastic films. They actually hamper recycling efforts.
Recycling plastic bags the right way
There is, in fact, a way to recycle plastic bags. Grocery stores and big-box stores offer collection bins where customers can drop off a wide variety of plastic bags and other films.
That is, unless a town has banned plastic shopping bags.
Stores provide those bins to take back the shopping bags they use at checkout. They’ll take other plastic film, too (unfortunately, not frozen vegetable bags). Bag bans take away the incentive.
When you take bags back to the store, you stuff them into a larger plastic bag. The store sends an accumulation of these bags to companies that will make new products. What kinds of new products?
- Lumber substitutes (Trex™ for example) for decking or fences
- Playground equipment
- Park benches
- New plastic bags
Reduce or reuse
“Recycle” is the third and least important of the 3 Rs of waste management: reduce, reuse, recycle.
We reduce the amount of plastic we use by not taking it home in the first place.
Keep a supply of cloth bags handy and take them into any store that’s likely to give you a plastic bag. Some will even take a nickel off your total bill for each of your own they use for your purchases.
Where you have a choice, prefer brands in paper or chipboard packaging instead of plastic.
When you do accumulate plastic shopping bags, you can take them to thrift shops or food banks. That way you can be sure they’ll be reused at least once.
You can also find potentially dozens of reuses for them around the house. Carry some with you when you walk the dog, for example, to pick up poop.
These reuses, unfortunately, mean that the bags will find their ultimate destiny in the landfill. Taking them to the recycling container at the store is better.
If you’re at all interested in crafts, you can find ways to use plastic bags for any number of projects. You’ll make useful items that can last for a long time.
For example, it takes 500-700 plastic bags to make enough plastic yarn (plarn) for a bedroll a homeless person can use.
We find ourselves overrun by plastic bags because of their convenience. With small sacrifices in convenience, we can cut down on our plastic bag use. We can keep them off the streets and out of landfills.