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Plastic bags contaminating recycling

Plastic bags still seem to be one of the hardest materials to recycle. Although they are made of very easily recyclable materials they can many times be a contaminant in regular recycling. Problems with trying to properly recycle plastic bags is nothing new. Plastic bags have always been one of those commodities that have posed a challenge to collect and recycle. It’s no wonder why so many people would like to see them banned from being used.

 Plastic bags are typically made from one of three basic types: high-density polyethylene (HDPE), low-density polyethylene (LDPE), or linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE). The thicker glossier shopping bags from the mall or retail stores are LLDPE, while grocery bags are usually HDPE.

 Today most recycling haulers are seeing plastic bags mixed in with recycling. This is occurring in both single stream and multi stream recycling programs. Plastic bags are being found mixed in both municipal and commercial recycling.

 Not only are plastic bags becoming a common contaminant, but similar materials are as well. This also includes bubble wrap, plastic air bubble packaging and other similar materials.

 These materials often have a recycling symbol on them and sometimes have a number inside the chasing arrows. This confuses people. People think “the bags are plastic and have a number on them then they must be recyclable and I can throw them in with the rest of the recycling.” You can’t totally blame people; according to that rationing it makes sense to throw plastic bags into plastic recycling or the city’s single stream program.

 The City of Boston recently passed out flyers to residents about contaminants in their single stream program. One of the top contaminants was plastic bags.

 Facilities don’t want these bags for two main reasons. The main problem is the bags are getting caught in the machines causing jams and failures. This creates down time and machine breakage. Secondly, these bags get mixed in with other plastics or paper and lowers the grade of recycling. Most facilities around here aren’t set up to separate the bags from the recycling stream. Even if they do the material is so light and worth so little it’s not really worth collecting.

 Let’s not forget the bags are recyclable. Most grocery and many retail stores have barrels for you to recycle your plastic bags. This may confuse people even more and encourage them to throw the bags in with their single stream recycling..

 Many people believe we should ban these from being used in stores. In some places they are. When I visited Prague a few years ago, most stores charged you for a plastic bag if you didn’t have your own bag. Not a bad idea.

 So in conclusion you can’t totally fault people for throwing plastic bags into regular, especially single stream recycling programs. We need to work at keeping plastic bags and similar materials out the recycling stream. Even though these materials are recyclable when they are mixed in with certain streams of recycling they become a contaminant and cause more harm than good.