Will Your Plastic Bag Get Recycled?

By PSU EcoMerge Capstone - 12:10 AM

In our modern lives, we encounter materials made out of plastics at every turn. From health to nutrition to shelter and transportation, to communication and sports to leisure activities, the plastic industry has delivered many benefits to our way of life. Did you know that in the United States, the plastic industry is the third largest manufacturing industry and that it employs 1.1 million people and delivers $374 billion dollars in shipments?

Could you imagine what your life would be like if all of a sudden all the items made of plastic disappeared? This could possibly mean your computer, part of your car, and yes, your shopping bags.

What is the history of plastic bags?

Plastics bags are made out of a type of plastic called polyethylene, which is produced from natural gas (abundant but non-renewable resource). It was discovered about half a century ago, and the first plastic bags were introduced as baggie sandwich bags in 1957. According to a timeline published by www.plasticindustry.org, between 1974-1975, the industry grew as many retail stores adopted packaging their products with plastic.

According to www.earth911.com about 89 billion plastic bags, sacks, and wraps are used each year in the US. In 2007, the percentage of plastic bags that was recycled increased by 27%, adding to a total of 830 million pounds of plastics being recycled.

What impact does manufacturing plastic bags have on our environment?

When manufactured, polyethylene apparently uses less energy, oil and water than paper bags made with 30% recycled fibers. According to www.superbag.org plastic bags use less water and less energy when produced.

So what happens to the plastic bag that you brought your groceries home in after you have used it?

According to www.earth911.com the bags that get recycled are the ones that end up in the trash at the grocery or retail store that you bought your products from. While these entities are the most efficient for collecting plastic bags for recycling, the bag that gets home with you probably will not get recycled (food and beverage can contaminate these bags, which makes recycling more costly). Furthermore, most facilities that recover products are set up to separate bottles from paper, but they do not separate plastic bags and wraps because these items can get caught in their equipment. This explains the low percentage of plastic bag recycling that takes place. But for now let’s focus on what happens to the bag that does get lucky and it gets recycled.

First it gets collected with other product wraps and stretch wrap and it gets transported to a central distribution center where it gets baled and picked up by a recycler. The recycler could be located in the US or somewhere oversees. Apparently, this combination of plastics is a desired material because it takes the place is virgin feedstock.

Most of the plastics get recycled into composite lumber (1/2 wood, 1/2 plastic) and can help you build a new deck, door or window frames, and exterior moldings. Others get recycled into new bags, pallets, containers, crates and pipes.

However, it is unfortunate that only a small percentage of all plastic bags do get collected and recycled. According to a study by the EPA, only 5.2% were recycled in 2005. That number has increased by 27% in 2007. But we've got to do better. The best chance of getting the plastic bag you brought home recycled as well as the plastic that the product you bought came wrapped in is to take it to the grocery store where it gets collected and transported to the right place.

With a little bit of planning, this is not hard to do. But is that the best alternative? How about paper? Or are there other options? More in another post.

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