I recently gave a talk on recycling to the Middleburg Womens Club, and one of the questions that came up was what to do with Ziploc plastic bags. Then they went on to tell me about a recycling project they’ve undertaken that involves collecting plastic grocery bags and weaving them into mats. This gave me the idea that maybe it’s time to shed some light on recycling plastic bags.
Most of us know how to recycle numbers 1 and 2 plastics. They’re usually bottles or jugs, and they go in the plastics container at your local recycling drop-off. Or, if you have a single stream service, you just put them in the big bin they give you and place it on your curb for pickup. Easy peezy.
But many of us scratch our heads when it comes to recycling plastic bags, even though they’re made from nearly the same material as bottles and jugs. It turns out they’re easy to recycle also, but they just take a different route because they have a different shape. Most plastic bags are made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE, #2 plastic), but the thinner bags, such as produce bags, are made from low-density polyethylene (LDPE, #4 plastic).
Rigid plastics, like gallon milk containers, are typically processed by machines working off conveyor belts. But throwing plastic bags into the mix wreaks havoc on these machines, as the bags bend easily and get snagged in belts. They jam machinery and need to be cleared by hand.
You probably know that most communities don’t accept plastic bags in their curbside bins. But many grocery chains and big box stores have bins set up to collect bags, and some dry cleaners accept number 4 plastic dry cleaning film. As with other materials, plastic bags should be clean before you toss them in the recycling container; be sure to remove any residue and paper items such as receipts and wrappers.
But what exactly can you put in the bin at your local grocery store? Most bag collections accept HDPE and LDPE in many forms. This includes plastic shopping bags, food packaging (those Ziploc-type bags), bread bags, plastic liners from cereal boxes, produce bags, dry cleaning bags, plastic newspaper wrapping, product wrapping (such as the cover on a case of water bottles, etc.), and bubble wrap and air pillows (popped). Black bags such as big trash bags are harder to recycle and sometimes not accepted at store collection bins because the plastic is dyed and produces dark pellets, limiting the reprocessing options.
Plastic bag recycling involves chipping the bags and melting them down into pellets. While pellets can then be reprocessed into new bags, they will most likely be shipped to a company like Trex for manufacturing into plastic lumber.
As you would probably guess, there are plenty of reasons to justify recycling plastic bags. Recycling a ton of plastic bags (about 450,000) saves 11 barrels of oil. It minimizes litter; think of all the bags blowing along our highways. And plastic bags are among the most common sources of marine debris, where they can be mistaken as food by birds and fish.
Snyder County Recycling Coordinator
Snyder County Solid Waste Management Authority570-374-6889, x-115