Plastic bag recycling

One of the plastic bag recycling bins at my local WinCo.

One of the plastic bag recycling bins at my local WinCo.

I carry at least one reusable bag with me almost all the time. Emphasis on almost. Try as I might, plastic bags still infiltrate our home: the plastic carrier bag that the new girl at the local grocery store insisted on putting all my stuff in before putting it in my canvas bag, the produce bags I still use sometimes when my lettuce or radishes have just been misted, and bags from the deli counter that carry home my cheese and meats. (I haven’t gotten the nerve yet to ask them about putting my stuff in a reusable container – but I’m working on it.) I keep the nice bags (the ones without holes) and use them to line the little wastebaskets in the bathrooms.

I wad up all the other bags inside a bigger bag which I eventually take back to WinCo with me and cram into the plastic bag recycling bin in the foyer by the carts. This has worked magnificently for me. Well, it did until I started asking questions. The whole month of analyzing my garbage thing got me second-guessing myself all over the place. If masking tape was compostable and tea bags could be nylon of all things, then maybe the bags I was putting in the recycling bin weren’t actually recyclable –or maybe there were other plastic films I could be putting in there and I was missing out.

The plastic bag recycling bins at my local WinCo are provided by Hilex, one of the leading manufacturers of poly films in general and plastic bags in particular. They have especial emphasis on bags with post-consumer content. Have you seen the “Gray is the new GreenTM bags? That’s them.

This is their official acceptance policy from the Bag-2-Bag® Program’s website:

  • Yes – clean HDPE grocery bags, retail bags, dry cleaner bags — These are items with and SPI symbol 2 or 4 (2 or 4 inside of chasing arrows)
  • Yes – LLDPE pallet stretch film
  • Yes – clean LDPE merchandise over wrap shrink film — These are items with and SPI symbol 4, or 4 inside of chasing arrows – this is the plastic often used to cover flats of soda, water bottles and bulk purchases of toilet paper and paper towels as well as other products.
  • No – PVC or PVDC (Saran) films (meat wrap is PVC)
  • No – moisture – dry bales only
  • No – trash, paper or corrugated materials inside bales (attached paper labels ok)
  • No – strapping twine or tape (within the bale)
  • No – wood, broken pallets
  • No – polystyrene, polyurethane foamed, polypropylene
  • No – PETE trays
  • No – plastic bottles
  • No – oil or grease
  • No – hazardous materials, medical wastes, or packages of these products
  • No – metal
  • No – food or food packaging
  • No – produce packaging

Here’s the list from their blog post “What can be recycled in the Bag-2-Bag program?

  • Grocery bags (don’t forget to remove the receipt!)
  • Produce bags (make sure to clean bags to avoid pests!)
  • Dry cleaning bags
  • News paper bags
  • Toilet paper packaging and paper towel packaging
  • Bottle overwrap (the plastic casing around packages of water or other beverages)
  • Bread bags (make sure the bread is gone!)
  • Zip lock bags (remove the zipper – it can’t be recycled with the bag!)
  • Trash bags (remove the draw string!)
  • Plastic packaging around consumer electronics

And here were my questions:

  1. One list says yes to food packaging and one says no. Does that even mean bread bags? Many bag recycling programs accept bread bags (on the theory, I believe, that bread is fairly dry and the crumbs can be shaken out).
  2. I was also curious about the exclusion of other food packaging, in particular fresh and frozen produce bags. It seems that if they were rinsed and dried they should present no hazard to the recycling process –but from what I understand, the process of sorting is largely visual and since I am likely the only person in my whole county who would go to the trouble to wash and dry a bag before recycling it that most of this kind of bag that end up in the stream are “contaminated”.
  3. Degradable (fragmenting) and biodegradable (compostable) bags are not recyclable, correct?
  4. I have heard for years that one incorrect item in a bale of recyclable material will cause the whole bale to be rejected and sent to the landfill. Is there any truth to this?
  5. I have a stash of frozen food bags because I stopped taking them to the Bag-2-Bag® bin after reading that they weren’t acceptable –but when I looked over the bags I had in hand they were marked LDPE, resin code 4. This makes them technically acceptable, but if the sorters are going to remove and destroy them I think it would be best for me not to include them in the first place.
  6. Is polywrap (the white on one side silver on the other plastic sheeting used by many mail order companies) acceptable in the program? I recently received a large package swathed in the stuff and it bears no useful markings whatsoever.

I put these questions to Philip R. Rozenski, Director of Marketing and Sustainability at Hilex, and he was kind enough to answer them all for me. Here are his answers:

  1. Yes to food bags. “This includes empty bread bags and other plastic food bags as well!”
  2. “To answer your question about frozen produce bags, packaging made from polypropylene [PP, or #5] or polyvinyl chlorides [PVC], such as the plastic used to make frozen produce bags, are not recyclable and can cause problems in the recycling process. These plastics are used to solve specific problems with exposure to oil, water, bacteria, or oxygen, which is used to keep food items from perishing.”
  3. “In response to your other questions about degradable bags, these bags aren’t generally recycled at recycling plants as they are actually designed and intended to break down on their own so they can contaminate other plastics if recycled. As a sustainable manufacturer we promote recyclable product rather than degradable.”
  4. I was relieved to learn that “the most common item recovered during the sorting process is paper receipts from stores. Any recovered non-recyclable items are properly disposed of or sent off to the appropriate recycling facility.” If you want to see the actual recycling process watch this video from Earth911 that Mr. Rozenski suggested to me. (Further reading* has reinforced the debunking of this myth. In other recycling – the commingled curbside kind – an incorrect item does not stop the works or “spoil” the product, but it does slow it down.”
  5. “If it has a 2 or 4 please put it in, we are good about letting the right items through.”
  6. For 3 many “mailers” are made of multiple plastic types. It is best to look for a 2 or 4 resin identification code or RIC. If not on it you may contact the maker for an answer and it could lead them to include markings in the future. If not known it should not be included. As a side sealed air bags used to ship from Amazon and other online shippers is typically recyclable 4 as well.”

I have cut down on my use of plastic bags – and plastic in general – quite a bit over the past year, but it does sneak in! But now I feel less leery of the film and bag type. There’s still nothing I can do about bottles and jugs in our area, since the transfer station doesn’t accept them, but I do have an easy disposal method for plastic bags that I feel I can trust. (I’m not just saying that because Mr. Rozenki is reading this!)

As for the bags and films I can’t recycle through the Bag-2-Bag® program: just you wait. I have been reading up and doing some experimenting and I have found some clever reuses for non-recyclable plastics!

One last note: Please keep in mind that these acceptance policies are unique to Hilex’s Bag-2-Bag® program. Hilex is the company that collects bags at the grocery store where I do most of my shopping – and, indeed, they have “over 30,000 locations” for consumer bag dropoffs –but they are not the company that collects bags at the other, smaller grocery store where I do occasional shopping. These guidelines may not be anywhere near what your collector accepts, so please check with them.

— Amanda

*The Zero-Waste Lifestyle by Amy Korst. Review here.


One thought on “Plastic bag recycling

  1. These are really some valuable information. I really did have a lot of information from your blog. It is nice to know this information and I can use this as my guide too. Moreover, I do believe that everything should start from us also. We should observe the three R’s which is Reuse, Reduce and Recycle in order for us to help save our mother earth. Let us be disciplined and observe proper waste disposal and usage. –


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