Plastic Bag Recycling Rate – A Non-Issue

Bag Ban Proponents like to point out that the recycling rate for plastic carryout bags is 5% or less and that because of the low recycling rate, plastic carryout bags should be banned.

Bag Ban Proponents totally miss the point.  When plastic carryout bags are reused as trash bags, waste can liners, to pick up pet litter, dispose of kitchen grease, dispose of dirty diapers, or the myriad of other uses and end up in the landfill filled with trash, they cannot be recycled.  Bag Ban Proponents appear to have a particularly difficult time comprehending this simple fact.

According to the State of California, the recycling rate of plastic carryout bags through the In Store Recycling Program is less than 5%.  (CalRecycle, 2011)  The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that 14.1% of plastic bags (of all kinds) are recycled.  (EPA Office of Solid Waste, 2013)

What Bag Ban Proponents neglect to tell you is that according to a study by the UK Environment Agency 76% of all plastic carryout bags are reused by consumers for a variety of purposes.  In fact, this same study reports that 40.3% of all plastic carryout bags are reused as waste bin liners, as trash bags, and to pick up pet litter.  In addition, the study claims that reusing a plastic carryout bag as a trash bag is actually beneficial to the environment because it avoids the manufacture and purchase of another plastic bag.  (Edwards & Fry, 2011)

In a similar 2007 study, performed by APCO Insight, it is reported that 92% of respondents said they reuse plastic carryout bags and 8% said they did not.  Sixty-Five percent (65%) of the respondents used them for trash and the remainder used them for a variety of other purposes. (APCO Insight, 2007)

Both the UK study and the APCO Insight study identify high levels of secondary reuse of plastic carryout bags that would inhibit recycling rates for these bags, since most would end up in the landfill with trash!

In fact, the plastic carryout bag is one of the most repurposed and reused items that comes into the home.  The fact that plastic carryout bags are used for 12 minutes to carry groceries home and then reused as a trash bag to dispose of trash is beneficial to the environment in that it prevents the purchase and manufacture of another plastic bag. (Edwards & Fry, 2011)  By reusing plastic carryout bags a certain efficiency is attained that when broken results in a higher environmental cost! (van Leeuwen, 2013)

But getting back to that low 5% plastic bag recycling rate often quoted by bag ban proponents.  The only thing lower is the recycling rate for reusable bags.  Yes, that is right and you heard it here!  The recycling rate for reusable bags is close to 0% or at most 1%.  You won’t hear a Bag Ban Proponent tell you that!  Don’t you think we should ban reusable bags as well?

You see, majority of reusable bags currently in use in California are made from non-woven Polypropylene (PP) or fabrics such as cotton.  While PP is technically recyclable, currently there is no recycling infrastructure that will accept PP bags in the United States.  Furthermore, although cotton bags are technically compostable, there is no composting facility currently available.  Hence, both PP and cotton reusable bags must be disposed of in the trash or landfill. (Greene, 2011)

About 1% of reusable bags are made from High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) or Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE).  These bags are recyclable via the In-Store Recycling Bin at your local retail store.

The real problem with the lightweight plastic carryout bags is the litter problem.  Plastic bags that enter the environment as litter is a direct result of people who litter and from wind-blown trash coming from garbage and other trucks or more simply put the improper disposal of trash.

A caller to a local radio show made an interesting observation.  He said that when people shop and use plastic carryout bags to bring their groceries home, the bags are not littered.  The caller went on to explain, that when people go into a store to purchase food and drink that will be consumed somewhere outside the store, that the probability is very high that those plastic bags will end up as litter.  A simple solution might be to provide a paper bag instead of a plastic bag to a person buying drinks and snacks?

A similar argument can be made for plastic carryout bags that are reused to pack clothes and food items for a trip to the beach or to the park.  An empty bag that is disposed in a trash receptacle could become windblown litter if not tied in a knot or weighed down with trash.

Shoppers who save plastic bags for reuse should be sure to recycle excess bags in the In-Store Recycling Bins at their local supermarket.  If they do dispose of bags in the curbside trash bin, these bags along with paper litter that can become windblown should be bagged, just like the requirement to bag shredded paper!  This solution will prevent a lot litter spilling from garbage trucks when containers are emptied thereby preventing a significant amount of roadside litter not to mention plastic bag litter.

While no  one knows the proportion of plastic carryout bags used in the community that enter the environment as litter, we do know that plastic bags of all types comprise less than 0.6% of roadside litter!  (Stein, 2012)  Using a bag ban to control littered plastic bags is the wrong solution, cost the public millions of dollars for negligible results. (van Leeuwen, 2013)

Plastic bag bans are BAD public policy.  When Bag Ban Proponents talk about the low 5% plastic bag recycling rate without explaining that the low recycling rate is a direct result of the high secondary reuse rate of plastic carryout bags by shoppers, you know they are trying to pull the wool over your eyes!

Click on the following link to download a copy of this post:  Plastic Bag Recycling Rate – A Non-Issue

Bibliography

APCO Insight. (2007, March). National Plastic Shopping Bag Recycling Signage Testing. Retrieved November 23, 2013, from Bag The Ban: http://www.bagtheban.com/assets/content/bag-recycling-signage-testing.pdf

CalRecycle. (2011, April 6). 2009 Statewide Recycling Rate for Plastic Carryout Bags. Retrieved from CalRecycle: http://www.calrecycle.ca.gov/plastics/atstore/AnnualRate/2009Rate.htm

Edwards, C., & Fry, J. M. (2011, February). Life cycle assessment of supermarket carrier bags: a review of the bags available in 2006. Retrieved from United Kingdom Environmental Agency: http://a0768b4a8a31e106d8b0-50dc802554eb38a24458b98ff72d550b.r19.cf3.rackcdn.com/scho0711buan-e-e.pdf

EPA Office of Solid Waste. (2013, May). Municipal Solid Waste in The United States 2011 – Facts and Figures. Retrieved from EPA Municipal Solid Waste: http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/MSWcharacterization_fnl_060713_2_rpt.pdf

Greene, J. (2011). Life Cycle Assessment of Reusable and Single-use Plastic Bags in California. California State University, Chico, Sustainable Manufacturing Program. Chico: California State University Chico Research Foundation.

Stein, S. R. (2012). ER Planning Report Brief: Plastic Retail Bags in Litter. Retrieved from Environmental Resources Planning, LLC: http://www.erplanning.com/uploads/Plastic_Retail_Bags_in_Litter.pdf

van Leeuwen, A. (2013, September 10). Bag Bans: Wrong Way To Control Litter. Retrieved from Fight The Plastic Bag Ban: http://fighttheplasticbagban.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/bag-bans-wrong-way-to-control-litter.pdf

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4 thoughts on “Plastic Bag Recycling Rate – A Non-Issue

  1. Firstly, the 5% rate is only counting the plastic bags that are returned to the store. In California, no store collects them; there is a local recylcing program for each residence. So the “study” is worthless. Secondly, the study hasn’t been updated in years. Thirdly, the amount of household plastic recycled by the City of Oxnard each year is many tons, and plastic bags are a big part of it. The 5% figure is now used as a false representation, and any official or “consultant$” who use it should be fired and sued, respectively.

    1. Thank you for your comment. To clarify, any grocery or retail store in California that distributes plastic bags is required to have an In-Store Recycling Bin so members of the public can recycle plastic bags. These recycling bins also accept newspaper bags, produce bags, product bags, and plastic wrap from toilet paper, paper towels, etc. Stores are required to report to the State of California how many tons of plastic bags they purchase and how many tons of plastic bags and other material are recycled. Due to budget cuts, the State of California has not posted new data after 2009, although it is still collected. In 2009, only 3% of plastic bags purchased were recycled. However, for every ton on plastic grocery bags recycled, more than 10 tons of “other” plastic bags and wraps were recycled and kept out of the landfill.

      The purpose of my article is to show that 5% recycling rate is not the whole story.

      1. Why would one need to recycle a REUSABLE bag? Of course reusable bags have a low recycling rate because they are constantly being used! I understand single-use plastic bags are useful around the house but human convenance isn’t working well for our surrounding environment or wildlife. There is a common ignorance to the over use of single-use bags. Furthermore, tax dollars are already being spent on single-use plastic bags whether the money is going toward a bag ban or to the cost of litter control. This is an issue of curbing a public dependency on single-use plastic bags.

      2. Brittani,

        Thank you for taking the time to read the article. Please read a few other articles posted so that you will be better informed on all the issues surrounding plastic bag bans.
        To answer your question, most communities in the State of California have adopted zero-waste goals. Those goals were established to pro-long landfill life by trying to recycle as much material as possible rather than continuing to dump that stuff in the landfill. If you take the time to read a plastic bag ban ordinance, you will find that paper bags must not only use 40% post consumer content (recycled paper) but must themselves be recyclable. But no such requirement exists for reusable bags. No matter how long a reusable bag is used, whether 1, 2, 5, or 10 years at some point the bag will fail or get dirty or get replaced by the latest fashion, and the bag is discarded in the trash to occupy space in the landfill. Would it not be smarter, that at the end-of-life for that reusable bag to be recycled or composted?
        You say there is common ignorance in the use of single-use bags. May I say that is true about reusable bags as well. You say that the public has a dependency on single-use plastic bags. May I say, that every shopper makes a decision every time they shop. They are free to bring their own reusable bags and use them any time they choose. But most shoppers make a choice where convenience and efficiency win out. Using a store provided plastic carryout bag is not only more efficient in the use of one’s time, but also has a lower environmental impact than either paper or reusable bags.
        Please take the time to read our other articles titled: “Using Reusable Bags It’s Not That Easy” and “Bag Bans: Trading One Problem For Another” and “California Landfills Impacted By Bag Bans”.

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