These days plastic is everywhere we look, it might make up the chair you are sitting on or the computer screen you are reading from. It is an incredibly useful material that we have become reliant on as a species. One use of plastic that is almost daily in many people’s lives is plastic bags, and despite charges and even bans of them in certain areas they are still a common site. So until we get rid of them completely many people wonder do plastic bags get recycled?

The answer is, it depends where you live. Some areas have the facilities in recycling centres to recycle plastic bags but a large proportion still do not and in all likelihood, if you put a plastic bag in with your other plastic recycling they will get separated out and end up being burned or in landfill.

So why is this? When other plastics can be recycled in most places why do plastic bags not always get recycled?

 

Why are plastic bags so bad for the environment?

 

Plastic is an amazing material in the fact that it takes a very long time to biodegrade. This is why you see it being used on virtually every other item in your daily life.

But for this reason it means that if they find there way out of our homes and into the external environment they stay there pretty much forever.

As you are probably aware from recent campaigns, plastic bags are now among the most common pieces of marine debris. This is because their light nature makes it easy for them to be carried on the wind, eventually end up in streams and rivers and then finally the ocean. Once there it is destined to float suspended in the currents for hundreds of years. Posing a risk to the health of many sea creatures.

The environmental costs of creating the bags in the first place is also high, relying on the extraction of oil.

Many plastic bags along with other waste is simply burned, which at least means it doesn’t end up in landfill, and can be used to create energy. However, this still means more carbon emissions and we all know that is not good news for the environment.

 

Why are plastic bags not always recycled?

 

So we know they are really bad for the environment, but no matter how hard we try they are hard to avoid, and when we do end up with one and we don’t want it to end up in the ocean why can’t we simply recycle them?

In many areas now a plastic recycling bin is a common site. They welcome rigid plastic items like milk bottles but often don’t accept plastic bags.

The reason for this is that most recycling centres are highly automated, with large machines sorting and processing materials. A plastic bottle maintains its shape fairly well and so can pass through machinery not problem. However, a plastic bag is much more flexible and malleable and as you can imagine could cause havoc with a machine. Potentially wrapping around belts or snagging, resulting in costly mechanical fixes that recycling plants try hard to avoid.

Another reason is that you need to gather a large quantity of plastic bags to be able to sell them off at a reasonable price. The reality is that for recycling centres, that need to try not to loose money, other plastic recyclables are much easier to collect and then sell on to be re-used.

So don’t simply put your plastic bag in your plastic recycling bin and cross your fingers. The chances are that the bags will still end up in landfill or being incinerated.

 

Is there any way to get them recycled?

 

Before you get too disheartened, there are still ways to recycle plastic bags, it just might take a bit more effort than throwing them in a curb side bin.

In the USA, many large retail stores now have plastic bag recycling bins. This includes the likes of Walmart and Target.

Walmart and Target are large stores that have the space free to hold onto plastic bags for a long time before eventually selling the off in bulk. The bags are already sorted rather than having to be separated from other plastics in a machine. All this is why they can do it and the recycling centres choose not to. If we were all to start gathering up and sorting hundreds of plastic bags and taking them to the recycling centre in bulk, things might change, but until that day this is the only way.

There are also an increasing number of publicly accessible plastic bag recycling drop-off points appearing. In the US you can head to this website https://www.plasticfilmrecycling.org/recycling-bags-and-wraps/ and enter your zip code to find out where your nearest one is located.

 

What happens to these bags when they are recycled

 

So you’ve done the responsible thing and taken your plastic bags to your local plastic bag recycling bin. But you may still be anxious about what happens to it then. Well seeing as it is no longer simply shipped to China (https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/03/china-has-stopped-accepting-our-trash/584131/), something must happen to it.

The bags are taken away to a specialist plastic bag recycling centre. Here it still must go through a number of steps to ensure no contaminants are present, because people still have a habit of leaving things in the bags (either by accident or out of laziness). These steps include hand sorting, magnets (to remove metal) and even floatation tanks. Finally, the plastic is melted down to remove any final contaminants forming a weird plastic sludge.

This sludge is then turned into pellets. A handy way of storing the plastic before it can be re-used.

The plastic pellets are used in a number of applications, this could be to make more plastic bags (yay!) or for other applications such as plastic pallets, pipes and even playground sets.

 

Can all plastic bags be recycled, what about plastic films?

 

The majority of single-use plastics including plastic films can be recycled in these schemes providing you remove non-plastic items from them first.

However ard we try though, unfortunately, there are still some items that can’t be recycled in this process, this includes:

  • Pre-washed salad mix bags
  • Frozen food bags
  • Candy bar wrappers
  • Chip bags
  • Six-pack rings

This is due to these products containing other substances. Frozen food bags, for example, contain a polymer layer to give the contents added protection. This is what makes them non-recyclable.

 

The problem with recycling

 

But before you skip away with a clean conscience to carry on using plastic bags guilt-free, that is not the point here. This is a genuine concern of many people that an increase in recycling schemes is simply letting people carry on as normal instead of tackling the route causes of the problem. Because we know something can get recycled, many don’t stop to think about whether they should reduce or re-use instead.

Until recently, America was exporting large amounts of this ‘recycling’ to China. The very definition of detaching oneself from the problem. But that has now come to an end and recycling plants are now struggling to keep up.

As you have probably gathered from this article, even when we separate out our plastic bags and take them ourselves to a special plastic bag recycling point, the process to get them back into something that is useable once again is not easy. That process takes large plants which require large amounts of energy to sort and then process the bags. Yes, it is better than them ending up in the ocean, but there is still an environmental impact.

The reality is that even with clever new uses for plastics, such as in building roads. There is enough single-use plastic already in the world to fulfil all these uses without needing to produce more.

 

Plastic bag alternatives

 

The key then is to try and reduce our use of plastic bags. The rule should always be:

  • Reduce
  • Re-use
  • Recycle

 

If you can reduce the use by using alternatives the need for recycling is taken out of the equation. If you are in a shop and only have a couple of items, can you put them back in the trolley and place them in the boot? Do you have another bag at home that you can leave in the car to always have available on shopping trips?

Try and find a bag you already own or buy a second-hand bag. Simply going out and buying a nice new material bag is forgetting the environmental costs of making that new bag.

There is nothing wrong with re-using old plastic bags too. We all have some lying around the house somewhere. If you can give them a wash and re-use them yourself, this is much better than the environmental costs of recycling it, just for you, or someone else, to buy it once again later.

Other handy items to reduce plastic bag use include these handy material fruit and vegetable bags which replace the small single-use plastic alternative. Simply put them in with your washing every so often to keep them clean.

 

Conclusion

 

In conclusion, due to the difficulty of separating them from other materials, you are unlikely to be able to recycle plastic bags in your home recycling.

However, plastic bags can be recycled in an increasing number of places, just make sure you double check the signs to ensure they accept the type of bag you have.

Finally, the mindset should still be to reduce and re-use rather than recycle. This has much less impact on the environment and you don’t have to spend all your time worrying if your bag was ever actually recycled!

Rob Wreglesworth

Rob is the head writer and podcast producer for The Disruptive Environmentalist. He is on a mission to build a community of people that are passionate about solving environmental problems.
Rob Wreglesworth

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