Plastic Pollution, Bag Bans
August 29 2013

It’s great to recycle - when convenient.

by Bill Hickman

The plastics industry and major corporations want you to believe that recycling is the holy grail of conservation.  If they keep pumping out products and we recycle it all, everyone wins!  Right?  The truth seems to be a bit more complicated than that.  It starts with the realization that the 'chasing arrows' logo was not developed for recycling, but simply to tell what type of resin a product is made from. #1 and #2 plastics can get recycled at decent rates but relatively little of #3 through #7 plastics get recycled, according to the EPA.

Very few products are designed with their end of life in mind.  Take water bottles for example.  They are typically made from resin #1 PET and they get recycled at high rates in states WITH a container redemption value (CRV) program.  But, the bottle caps are typically made from resin #5 polypropylene, which rarely gets recycled and often ends up as a top litter item at beach cleanups.

The beverage industry fights redemption programs fiercely, and recently reversed the recycling program mandated by the Northern Territory in Australia through legal action.  In the United States, they oppose CRV bills and typically state that curbside recycling is the most efficient way to recycle.  They seem to miss the point that their products are often consumed 'on-the-go', far away from a curbside bin at home.  They also fail to acknowledge that the small redemption fee is the perfect incentive to pick up bottles and cans if they are littered.

Let's step back now and buy into the theory that curbside recycling is the single best solution.  It seems that the best solution is what's most convenient to industry, not people.  Officials in Delaware recently reversed their advice to recycle plastic bags in curbside bins, now they advise to take plastic bags back to the store for recycling.  If I'm finished with a bag at home, why can't I throw it in the recycling bin?  If I need to take plastic bags back to the store, I might as well just take a reusable bag, right?

It turns out that most recycling processors don't like plastic bags for two main reasons: they increase costs and there is a very limited market for recycled plastic film.  Recycling has become a highly automated process as 'MRF's' (multiple resource facilities) separate commingled materials at a surprising rate.  Plastic bags can 'gum up' machinery, requiring more maintenance time or disrupt optical sorters, resulting is lower accuracy.

The best solution?  Remember your cloth reusable bag and reusable bottle!  Beyond that, get involved with your local Surfrider Chapter to raise awareness about plastic pollution and pursue meaningful plastic source reductions that lead to less litter.