You know that, of course. You probably also know that the plastic bag recycling system is broken. After all, not many bags actually go through it to become new products. As it turns out, the low recycling rate isn’t the only problem plaguing plastic bag recycling. Plastic bags are hard to recycle.
But before exploring the plastic bag recycling process and why it doesn’t work, we need to understand that it’s supposed to handle a lot more than plastic shopping bags:
- Bread and bun packages
- Bags of noodles, rice, or other dry products
- Produce bags
- Wrappings for paper towels, toilet paper, water bottles, etc.
- Plastic liners in cereal or cracker boxes
- Food storage bags (zipable or not), so long as they are clean and dry
- Bags used to protect newspapers, dry cleaning, etc.
- Plastic shipping envelopes and packaging such as bubble wrap or air pillows—deflate them and remove all labeling.
Unfortunately, the plastics recycling industry recommends against recycling bags that contained frozen foods or chopped salads. They are made from layers of different kinds of plastic.
A brief overview of recycling plastic
In the 1950s, public service announcements by Keep America Beautiful began to call the attention of the public to the problem of litter. Among others was portrayal of a plastic bottle that wanted to be recycled.
As it turns out, Coca Cola and other large beverage companies paid for Keep America Beautiful at the same time they lobbied to oppose legislation intended to regulate or outlaw non-refillable bottles.
Plastics recycling started in earnest in about 1990, when the plastics, oil, and natural gas industries started an advertising campaign that touted the economic value of used plastic bottles. The campaign focused on bottles, not plastic in general, and certainly not plastic bags. Industry knew at the time that not all plastic waste had any value and that recycling it wasn’t economically viable.
Actually, the plastics industry didn’t even especially want plastics recycling to succeed. After all, using recycled plastic to make new products means that much less virgin plastic that manufacturers can sell.
Beginning with Keep America Beautiful, industry efforts to boost plastic recycling amount to greenwashing. They also falsely leave the impression that the public, and not industry, bears the primary responsibility for making it work.
Recent decades have seen the rise of a concept called extended producer responsibility. It’s a legal concept that requires manufacturers to consider the entire life cycle of a product in designing it. Among other requirements, they become responsible for collecting and recycling packaging.
Extended producer responsibility has certain advantages for manufacturers. For one thing, it would help them meet their sustainability goals by guaranteeing an adequate supply of waste to recycle and reuse.
The way plastic bag recycling works—in principle
Americans use about 7.5 million tons of various plastic films every year. Residences receive about two thirds of that amount. The rest is used commercially, such as the film that covers pallets of goods that stores receive.
Because plastic bags are hard to recycle, the plastic bag recycling process is much different from the familiar curbside recycling.
A few counties have drop-off sites for plastic bags and other films, but for most Americans, the best option is to take them to a store that has plastic film recycling containers. It might not be obvious where to find the containers. The retail industry supplies the containers but doesn’t expend much effort on advertising them.
The American Chemistry Council, which represents plastic manufacturers, promotes plastic bag recycling. It has spearheaded the placement of plastic bag recycling containers at stores. To that end, it sponsors nearly 18,000 drop-off locations at stores all across the country. Its avowed purpose is to make plastic bag recycling easy and convenient for consumers.
Your part in the plastic bag recycling process
Collect all the various recyclable plastic bags and films you accumulate. From time to time, take your accumulation to one of those drop-off locations.
Put only clean plastic films in recycling. If you have used a plastic bag for food storage, wash all the residue out. Otherwise, you will contaminate the entire batch. So when you wash dishes by hand, wash out the bags at the same time. Make sure that no greasy residue remains. Let them dry before setting them aside for recycling. If you can’t get it clean, put it in the trash.
Even if you can get them clean, see if you can reuse them instead of recycling them. For example, I cook eight hamburgers at a time, eat one, and freeze the rest in a plastic freezer bag. I can wash and reuse the same bag over and over for cooked food until it wears out. You can also reuse plastic bags to store small non-food items such as craft supplies, game pieces, screws, or nails.
But here’s another idea that is less well known: Terracycle aims to recycle everything and offers several means for the public to participate. You can purchase a box from them, fill it with any kind of plastic packaging, and then mail it back. In the UK, ReFactory offers a similar service, but with separate boxes for films, straws, office supplies, and other packaging.
Industry’s part in the plastic bag recycling process
The store combines that the plastic collects from customers with what it receives on the pallets and sends it back to its distribution center. But first, a store employee ought to go through the recycling containers to sort out all the wrong items customers have put in them.
That is, the store bears some cost for providing the recycling service. It usually receives no reimbursement.
Trex, a Virginia-based company that makes composite lumber, receives most of the waste plastic film. I haven’t found a definitive statement of who pays the shipping costs or how much Trex pays for it.
Making composite lumber from waste plastic film is considered downcycling. Processes exist for converting the films to pellets that can be used to make new films. Other processes exist for converting the films into their constituent monomers and repolymerizing them. So far, only a few companies use those processes.
What really happens to too much “recycled” plastic films
ABC News tested the plastic bag recycling process by placing 46 trackers in bundles of plastic bags dropped off at Walmart and Target stores in ten different states. They super glued the trackers inside plastic bags and put them in multiple layers of bags.
Whenever the trackers went close to a suitable mobile or digital device, they pinged. The network and the stations it worked with monitored the location of each tracker several times a day.
- A tracker placed at a Target in Kingston, New York in December 2022 was one of the first to move. A week later, it turned up in a landfill in Waterloo, New York.
- By May 2023, half of the trackers were traced either to landfills or incinerators. Seven more stopped pinging at transfer stations that do not sort out plastic bags for recycling.
- After several months, six trackers apparently never left the stores where they were deposited.
- Three more eventually pinged at locations in India and Malaysia.
- Only four out of 46 trackers ended up in American facilities for recycling plastic bags.
It appears that ABC placed its trackers only at those two huge chains. Unless further investigation shows otherwise, it would be a mistake to take it as meaning that all drop-off locations mishandle plastic films the same way. If you have been taking plastic films to Walmart or Target, it would be better to take them somewhere else than to abandon plastic bag recycling altogether.
Why the plastic bag recycling system is broken
In principle, it is possible to recycle a wide variety of plastics. In practice, only two kinds get recycled with any regularity: PET, which is used for water bottles, and HDPE, which is used for milk jugs. Once these products get put out for recycling, the industry recycles 100% of them. But the recycling rate is only about 15-30% for PET and less than that for HDPE jugs.
Unfortunately, if 100% of these items entered the recycling stream, the industry couldn’t handle it all. It only has the capacity to process about 21% of PET bottles and about 10% of HDPE jugs. It can handle less than 5% of plastic bags and films and even less than of such things as coffee pods, plastic cutlery, ice cream tubs, or DVD cases.
According to a Greenpeace survey of 375 American recycling facilities, all of them accept PET and HDPE (marked with numbers 1 and 2). Half accept polypropylene (PP, no. 5) and only a tenth of them accept plastic clamshells or cups.
Polystyrene (no. 6) can go through sorting equipment at recycling facilities only if it hasn’t been expanded into foam. The foam will only break up into little pieces and contaminate everything else. Plastic bags and films (no. 4) can’t go through the equipment at all. It gets tangled in the rotating parts and causes the line to shut down until someone cleans it out. At worst, it can damage components of the equipment.
Recycling plastic is practically impossible. For one thing, it is hard to collect. So far, only packaging enters the recycling stream. What is anyone supposed to do with a broken plastic chair, discarded polyester clothing, or any of dozens of other plastic products?
Once collected in the typical single-stream recycling program, plastic is difficult to sort. And except for limited forms of PET, HDPE, and PP, there is little market for it. In principle, some manufacture could use other plastic wastes, but hardly any actually do, and they are mostly small startups.
Plastics industry innovations that can help—just not enough
The Dow Chemical Company has become a leader in corporate sustainability. It has initiated a number of plastics recycling partnerships all over the world to recycling types of plastic conventional recycling technology can’t handle. Dow will buy most of the output of these partners.
It has even established partnerships in Kenya that pay trash pickers for plastics that formerly had no resale value and so remained on the streets. What is hasn’t done is start to look for ways not to manufacture with plastic at all.
Because it is evident that the current system isn’t working, the American Chemistry Council is exploring ways to make curbside recycling work. It claims its goal is to make all the plastic packaging it manufactures recyclable.
But the council has also been active in discouraging bag bans or any other attempt to reduce the amount of plastic film manufactured every year. It has lobbied federal, state, and local governments to challenge restrictions on plastic. It has also teamed up with lobbyists from big oil to discourage an international treaty from including restrictions on producing plastic. Plastic bags are hard to recycle not only despite industry efforts but because of industry lobbying.
Technological breakthroughs that may or may not become practical
Advanced plastic recycling technologies exist that use enzymes produced by bacteria, high heat, or various chemicals that change its molecular structure. Depolymerization breaks down polymers into their constituent monomers, which can be used instead of oil to make new plastics. Pyrolysis, uses high heat in the absence of air to produce saleable products.
Pyrolysis is a proven technology and several commercial companies are using it. Otherwise, these techniques mostly remain at the experimental stage. The ones proven to work technologically either haven’t been scaled up for commercial production or are currently too expensive to make economic sense.
All successful recent technologies were once nothing more than ideas tested in a lab somewhere. All had to prove themselves in the marketplace before they succeeded. Success required a lot of time and a lot of money. And they succeeded where many other ideas failed for one reason or another.
Some advanced plastic bag recycling processes will probably succeed. Most will probably not. Even if they all become viable, they cannot fix a broken system. We can’t recycle our way out of the glut of waste plastic. The plastic industry makes too much plastic, and it has no intention of scaling back its production.
Beyond water bottles and milk jugs: what other plastics get recycled?
Can plastic-eating bacteria boost recycling?
Can plastic-eating bacteria in cows’ stomachs help plastic recycling?
The cost of convenience in careless recycling
Innovations in plastic recycling technology
Is it possible to fix plastic recycling problems?
Two new recycling technologies turn waste into resources
What happens to recycled plastic bags?
Can you recycle Ziplock bags? get your plastic bag disposal on lock / Sustainable Jungle. February 23, 2023
Plastic bags / Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District
We put dozens of trackers in plastic bags for recycling. Many were trashed / Matt Gutman et al., ABC News. May 23, 2023
What happens to the plastic bags we recycle at grocery stores?/ Eric Roper, Star Tribune. May 26, 2023
Why most plastic isn’t getting recycled / Daniel de Visé, The Hill. November 1, 2022