Are Plastic Bags Recyclable?

If you didn’t already know, those plastic bags you get from the grocery store and the pouches a lot of your beloved grocery store items come in can’t be recycled at your house. People frequently make this mistake and toss anything plastic into the recycle bin and assume, “they’ll sort it out at the recycling facility.” Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Recycling facilities try their best to sort out good recyclables VS. contaminants, but it’s a hard and expensive job. Employees and machinery spend all day next to a conveyor belt looking for things that don’t belong. But if you can’t tell what’s recyclable when you can get a good look at a package, how do we expect someone to spot bad/good items when hundreds of items are coming down a conveyor?

There are a lot of things that get tossed in recycling that aren’t actually recyclable, but plastic bags are a major culprit. According to the EPA‘s most recent numbers, we create almost 37 million tons of plastic waste. Of that 37 million, only 3.1 million tons are recycled. Meaning we aren’t even recycling 10% of our plastic waste. Now some of that is due to the type of plastic being used, which you can read about here, but there are some simple ways we can change our recycling habits to make a huge impact.

One of the biggest ways we can improve our recycling habits is by putting recyclables in the right place. The easiest place to start? Keep plastic bags out of our recycling bins. Plastic bags and flexible packaging in general can cause a number of problems when they get mixed in with recycling bins.

For starters, they make it really challenging to sort other recyclables. It’s really easy for other bottles, cans, or paper to get stuck inside of bags. This not only makes it really challenging to separate the different materials, but can lead to mislabeling those items stuck in bags. This can lead to paper or aluminum contaminating the plastic recyclables. Unfortunately these bags and any items trapped inside can end up just being sent to the landfill.

Photo by Lucas van Oort on Unsplash

The main concern when it comes to plastic bags is that they can’t be ground up in the same equipment used with other recyclable plastic. In fact they can get tangled up in the machinery, gumming things up and damaging the machinery. This is why it’s so important to keep your bags out of recycling bin. We are talking about thousands of dollars in damage because you put the wrong thing in the recycling bin. This can make it challenging for these operations to be profitable, which in turn makes it hard to charge low prices for the outputs after being processed. It hurts the entire recycling industry. So keep those bags out of your recycling and NEVER bag your recyclables.

This isn’t all doom and gloom though. These plastic bags still have value and can be recycled in their own way. As we have talked about in other blog posts, the How2Recycle program offers a lot of great information on how to handle these bags. These programs have a system of drop-off locations. So simply collect those bags at home and bring them in to one of their locations to be recycled. They will be turned into things like Trex lumber to give them a new valuable purpose. But remember, this only applies to bags that are appropriately labeled or listed on How2Recycle’s website as acceptable. Things like cellophane, biodegradable, compostable, or frozen food bags cannot be brought to these locations. They are made from incompatible materials.

I know at my house we all collect our grocery bags and other acceptable flexible packaging in our pantry. Then every couple weeks we bring them to grocery store close by that accepts store drop offs. So next time you have a bag and you are reaching for the trash or recycling, think again and start a bag collection of your own! Let me know if you have any questions about where your flexible packaging should go. I’d be happy to help!

You Need to Know How2Recycle

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

One of the biggest challenges I see time and time again when it comes to recycling and trash is consumer education. It’s hard to get people to care about something like packaging. Mostly it’s just viewed as a means to an end. However, that doesn’t make it any less important. The products we use every day almost always come wrapped or packaged in something. And that package’s value doesn’t have to expire the moment it’s opened. We need to recycle, but we need to do it right.

I live in a house of 4 people and I am constantly correcting them about what is and isn’t recyclable. It took a lot of communication to just get through that you can’t put flexible packaging in our curbside bin. I won’t lie, I even often get tripped up about how to dispose of random packaging, but I will usually take the time to look it up myself.

The challenge is the average consumer doesn’t know what can and can’t be recycled. What makes that worse, is they either don’t care to or aren’t willing to spend the time to look it up. The result is large amounts of our recyclables being sent to landfills due to contamination.

However, back in 2008 a project was launched by the Sustainable packaging Coalition in an effort to get more of the right thing into the recycle bin. That project is called How2Recycle. It includes labels like those below. These labels offer detailed yet simple critical information you need to know in order to recycle properly.

Photo from How2Recycle

Honestly it blows me away that something so simple took so long to catch on. This doesn’t take away from the ingenious concept because sometimes creating something so simple can be even harder. You’ll notice the labels are broken into 3-4 main sections.

At the very top you’ll find information about how to prepare the materials for recycling. This will include things like in the above example of just rinsing before recycling. It can also include information like what to do with caps, sprayers, pumps, or labels.

The next thing you’ll notice is the large recycle logo. This comes in a few different varieties. These range from the example on the left showing something that is widely recyclable, to the middle which is not recyclable, to the right showing something that requires checking locally. Another type that is not shown is items that need to be dropped off at certain store locations. One of the best things about this program is they have information on their website for checking locally and a store drop-off location finder.

Below the logo you’ll see the generic material type. This includes things like paper, glass, plastic, or metal. Below that you’ll see a reference to what part of the package the label is referring to such as pouch, box, or can. Between these two labels, you can get a pretty good idea of which part of the package should be disposed of where. This is great for packages with multiple components.

I highly suggest you check out How2Recycle’s website. They have a ton of information about the brands that are adopting their label and why all of this is so important. It’s a shame more brands haven’t adopted this labeling system. It offers all the tools consumers need to recycle correctly and their website updates frequently as things change and evolve. Keep an eye out next time you’re tossing something out. I’m sure you’ll start to notice these labels in more places than you realized.