Top Troublemakers: Plastic Bags

plastic bag

When it comes to disposing of plastic bags, you can either recycle them through a store drop off program or toss them in the trash. Plastic bags cannot be recycled in your curbside recycling. Let’s break down why they are so problematic when tossed in the wrong bin.

The reason lies in how things get recycled.

Everything in your recycling bin first goes to a Material Recovery Facility (MRF) where items get sorted into like piles. Plastic bottles end up in their own pile, as does cardboard, glass, steel, aluminum, and other types of hard plastic containers. Plastic bags, however, do not end up in their own special pile but instead in the leftovers called “residuals”. The residuals go to the landfill and are essentially all of the material that were not supposed to be put in the recycle bin in the first place. Plastic bags are residual because they can’t be efficiently sorted with the machinery available at Materials Recovery Facilities.

Not only do plastic bags end up in the landfill, they reduce the efficiency of recycling at the MRF. Plastic bags, because of their lightweight and flimsy nature, can easily get tangled in the machinery. Think of what would happen, for example, if you tried to vacuum a plastic bag. Chances are it would get wrapped around the rotating brush of the vacuum and get clogged somewhere along the system. That is essentially what happens at the MRF, at which point workers have to shut down the entire operation and climb into the dangerous machinery to remove the bag.

So why are many plastic bags labeled “recyclable”? Because the material can be recycled with the right equipment. To recycle your plastic bags you must take them to a store drop off location. Plastic bags can be recycled into various low grade plastic items such as new plastic bags or composite lumber. Please note that this list is not always up to date and during the COVID-19 pandemic some locations are not taking bags.