Trying to Recycle That Plastic Bag? The Odds Are Nine to One It’s Not Happening

It can feel impossible to get away from using plastic. In our consumer world, plastic is everywhere and deciding what to do with it, can be confusing.

More than 4.83 million tons of plastic film has been generated to date and only about 9.1% of that plastic is recycled.

The Ecology Center Helpdesk fields dozens of calls each month highlighting the challenges that come with plastic disposal. Where can I take my plastic bags and film? Is it being recycled? Where does it go?

Figuring out what to do with what the industry calls film plastic—produce bags, plastic wrap, dry cleaning bags, padded shipping envelopes, trash can liners, food pouches, newspaper bags, and other flexible plastic packaging—is a difficult task, but the Ecology Center is here to help.

It has taken our staff months to track down answers about where plastic bags, and other plastic films, end up when collected at local stores. In short, we don’t know the final destination of most plastic film because recycling is an ever-changing industry, in which markets are constantly shifting. While there were significant roadblocks and a serious lack of transparency, we were able to conclude that, like many other plastics, we can’t guarantee that plastic film is getting recycled, even if it is clean, dry, and disposed of in the “right” place. We also know that all plastic ever manufactured is still on this planet. Whether it is in use, recycled, landfilled, or in micro pieces in the environment, there is no “away” when we throw out plastic.

So what can you do? The best solution is to recycle what is accepted, and to refuse and/or reduce the rest! 

Understanding that it is not always that simple, we’ve compiled additional info and answers to some of your pressing questions about plastic bags and film:

Plastic everywhere. How did we end up here?

Since the 1980s, disposable plastic film has provided a convenient way to bag groceries and carry purchases, transforming the way we shop and store our items. Plastic bags are relatively strong, incredibly cheap, waterproof, and, perhaps most importantly, made to be thrown away. The plastics industry sold consumers and retailers on the convenience of “disposable” plastics. Whether it be in the kitchen cupboard, the landfill, or the ocean, plastic is piling up.

In the 2000s, a new shift in packaging began moving food and other consumer goods out of boxboard, and even cans, and into new kinds of plastic bags and pouches. Newspapers moved from delivering their papers with just a rubber band to delivering in a plastic sleeve, rain or shine. Online purchasing drove significant increases in plastic shipping bags and fillers. Today there are dozens of new applications of flexible plastic packaging used in hundreds or thousands of ways.

In 2009, the Ecology Center piloted a disposable bag reduction strategy, banning plastic bags and charging for compostable or recyclable ones, at our farmers markets. This strategy was followed by San Francisco and later, Alameda County. This movement inspired California to pass the Single-Use Carryout Bag Ban (SB 270) through legislative action in 2014. This was challenged by the plastic bag industry who ran a ballot measure in 2016, Prop 67, in which voters ratified the legislative action. As a result, grocery stores, liquor stores, convenience stores, and pharmacies, were prohibited from distributing single-use carry-out bags. This law significantly reduced the amount of disposable bags, however, other kinds of plastic film remain abundant.

Why have grocers like Berkeley Bowl, or recycling centers like the one in the City of El Cerrito, stopped collecting plastic film?

From 2007 to 2019, the state of California mandated stores to collect plastic bags for recycling via SB 270. Many large retailers utilize large quantities of plastic wrapping to secure boxes onto pallets. Until recently, this clean, uniform, bulk material had decent markets. Though blending in some post-consumer film collected from customers into the bulk bales was not a big deal initially, markets have since collapsed and quality control has become prohibitive. Today, if retailers can even identify a market, the material has to be extremely clean and not mixed with multiple types of colors of plastic. On top of that, as of January 1, 2020, the SB 270 mandate has ended and stores are no longer required to collect (and ideally recycle) plastic film.

In March 2019, Berkeley Bowl informed us that the plastic film collection service they were using shared that the collected plastic bags were in fact not being sold for recycling and were instead being sent to the landfill. So, Berkeley Bowl decided to stop collecting it. This is a common story, and explains why so many supermarkets have stopped accepting plastic film donations.

Who is collecting plastic bags/film?

The Ecology Center in Berkeley has never accepted plastic bags or plastic film in the blue curbside recycling cart—they get tangled in sorting machinery causing safety and efficiency issues.

In the East Bay, we know that some Walmart, IKEA, Target, Safeway, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Lucky grocers locations will accept plastic bags, but this is likely to change.  Because of their volume, these large chain stores may be able to accept the public’s plastic bags to mix with their own that gets aggregated in regional warehouses. The Ecology Center advises to always contact locations first to ensure they are still accepting these materials for recycling.

Do plastic bags and film actually get recycled?

We found that some plastic film does get recycled into other materials, but it is difficult to follow these film plastics into their next form. The entire recycling process is not well tracked, and thus, for the most part, we do not always know what becomes of the post-consumer plastics that are processed. This is part of our concern, and why it is most important that we focus on reducing our use first. To the best of our knowledge, the most common end products are plastic lumber and woven plastic shopping bags.

Locally, Roplast Industries, Inc. purchases post-consumer LDPE (#4) polyethylene to create recycled plastic products (printed, handled, reusable plastic shopping bags). Currently, we cannot find any other products made in California from collected plastic film.

Why isn’t there a market for plastic film in other countries? 

The U.S. used to sell most of its plastics to China. China was able to buy a lot of this plastic due to low wages and environmental protections. Unfortunately, much of this plastic ended up in informal and uncontrolled industries where the residual (sometimes 50% or more) was burned or illegally dumped, entering our oceans and other waterways. However, in 2017, China stopped accepting mixed plastic scrap because it was so poorly sorted and full of non-recyclable plastics and other contaminants.

At the same time, because of increased fracking for natural gas and petroleum, virgin plastic is cheaper and more readily-available than recycled plastic, and thus large companies opt for the virgin plastic. The fracking boom has only exacerbated the collapse of recycled plastic markets. Some major brands have recently begun to include more post-consumer plastic in their packaging in response to consumer demands, but this has not had major impacts yet.

In 2020, prospects are grim for international plastic film markets. Most have closed down completely or are only accepting extremely clean, uniform industrial scrap (like leftovers from production), as opposed to post-consumer waste. New international laws like the Basel Convention have begun regulating mixed plastics and film specifically, and many countries are now rejecting contaminated shipments. Some unscrupulous, grey market, and illegal waste trade still exist, but there are increasing barriers even in less regulated countries.

What can we do as individuals?

Reduce and reuse!

As a consumer, you vote with how you spend your dollar.

  • Purchase items with as little packaging as possible, and bring your own reused packaging to the store/market!
  • Don’t buy proceed foods sold in pouches.
  • Bring your own reused plastic or cotton produce bags for produce and bulk items.
  • Opt for highly-recyclable glass and metal options when they are available.
  • Eliminate plastic wrap by using containers or “beeswaxed” cloth alternatives like those we sell at Ecology Center store.
  • Subscribe to newspapers online instead of in paper.
  • Use paper instead of bags for trash and don’t bag your recycling.
  • Reuse the last of the old bags you’ve got in that drawer at home.
  • Pick a few things you can do and stick to them.
  • Get a copy of Beth Terry’s Plastic Free at our store (or library), and challenge yourself to make big changes for Plastic Free July.

Last but not least, visit our EcoStore to purchase and learn more about sustainable products for your home—we have all the alternatives you need. As our store product policy, we generally avoid products that are:

  • packaged in non-reusable, non-recyclable or excessive packaging
  • made from substances that are harmful to the environment, the end user, or the workers who produce it
  • disposable, if there is a good reusable alternative
  • made from plastic or other products that are derived from petroleum
  • made from genetically modified crops

Become an Ecology Center member and get a 20% discount on books and a 10% discount on everything else.

Please contact helpdesk@ecologycenter.org with any questions—we’re here to help!

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This article was written by Andrea Tineo and James Hosley of the Ecology Center Help Desk.


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19 thoughts on “Trying to Recycle That Plastic Bag? The Odds Are Nine to One It’s Not Happening

  1. Hi, I am trying to follow these rules, and I always take plastic bags to the store. However, I still have way too many plastic bags. What about the herbs and spices that come in sma. plastic bags? What do I do about those? Or products that come in plastic bags? So I should not buy them? Toilet paper for instance. I. Up the recycled ki d when I can. In other words, what do I do about the plastic bags I have in my possession right now. Do I put them into landfill? Your suggestions are good looking forward and I already try to follow them, it doesn’t help with the present.

    • Hi Frances,
      Thank you for following these rules and being conscious of your plastic consumption. We understand that getting plastic out of your life can be tricky and may require you to make some life changes and sacrifices- we are here to help. A good way to shift away from plastic use is to bring your own reusable bags and containers when shopping for food and spices in the bulk foods section offered at many grocery stores. We recommend that people use glass, metal, and paper containers before using plastic, but if you already have plastic bags- reuse, reuse, reuse! The plastic bags that linger in your home should be reused before they are landfilled or recycled (recycling drop-off locations listed in blog post). To answer your toilet paper concerns, there are brands of toilet paper that are individually wrapped in paper. Keep looking, as new brands using alternative packaging (less plastic) are out there. I hope you find this information helpful, please let me know if you have any additional questions.
      Sincerely,
      Helpdesk Team, helpdesk@ecologycenter.org, 510-548-2220 ext. 233

    • I reuse my empty medicine/pill bottles to hold bulk spices that I purchase. They are air tight & usually the right size. I also use some of these these bottles to hold & separate seeds for planting & beads for jewellery making.

      • We received a donation of empty medicine/ pill bottles and we are currently using them in our BASIL Seed Library for people to hold and separate their seeds too!

  2. thank you for this useful and detailed explanation. i, and many others, have been more and more confused as rules and best practices seem change somewhat frequently.

  3. Hi There, I really like this article and it’s so disappointing that even if we put the plastic film to be recycled in the ‘right’ place, there is no guarantee it will actually be recycled. One toilet paper organization that is doing good in the world, they donate 50% (!) to building toilets in developing countries and they do not use any plastic in the packaging of their TP. The org is Who gives a crap, https://us.whogivesacrap.org/ -I’ve been buying their TP for 3 whole 48/pc. boxes now. I really like the peace of mind that it is a good cause and doesn’t include plastic. We need as much help as we can get. Thank you.

  4. Cole Hardware accepts “soft plastic” at its Rockridge store — maximum amount one filled plastic bag (basketball size) per day. Their web site says they send it to Terra Cycle, “an innovative recycling company that has become a global leader in recycling hard-to-recycle waste.” Have you checked into this — do you know if what they are saying is true?
    https://www.colehardware.com/services/recycling/
    https://www.terracycle.com/en-US/

    • Hi Eloise,
      Thank you for your concern about this issue. We are familiar with Terracylcle’s collection programs and think it’s great that they are finding a way to recycle these tricky waste items. However, it is difficult to follow items in the waste stream and so we don’t know how much of what they collect is being recycled. More research would need to be done into Terracycle. Our best recommendation is to steer away from plastic to avoid the issue altogether.
      Sincerely,
      The Helpdesk, helpdesk@ecologycenter.org, 510-548-2220 ext. 233

  5. I have spoken to people at Trex, a company that partners with a number of retailers and recycles plastic bags to make decking. Safeway is one local company that’s part of this program. Although many Safeway employees aren’t aware of the Trex program, I have been assured by people in Safeway’s management that plastic bags left at Safeway stores are passed on to Trex. The Trex website lists the retailers who participate in their program by state. I realize that some people consider this solution “kicking the can down the road”, and of course it would be great to eliminate the use of plastic bags. But in the meantime, this seems much better than just trashing them.

  6. Thanks for info…maybe someday it won’t be such a labyrinth to recycle!
    I found you because i was looking for info on washing plastic grocery sacks during pandemic (preferably by machine) so at least we can use em around the house.

    • You can wash your plastic grocery bags just as you would wash dishes, just make sure to use soap and water to rinse them! Reuse, reuse, reuse!

  7. You can’t recycle any bags at Target and no stores will take them now with covid. Target no longer accepts them and we are not allowed to use reusable bags at grocery stores. So now I have literally a huge mass of bags that will end up in the trash!!!!!
    Enough bags to fill an entire trash can…most are single use bags a few are reusable bags. But with covid, no store and no company accepts them any more…basically it’s a complete recycling failure. I can still drop off cans, bottles, paper, etc but no one takes bags anymore. Target…Albertsons…Vons…zip. So I literally toss them into the trash which I hate to do but have no alternative…will any of them bring it back once this pandemic is over? Vons and Albertsons will not…I am certain of that…

  8. One thing you could do is gather your bags and leave outside for dog owners to use later for pet waste. Lately I have been more aware of plastic food and dog treat pouches, specifically. Why are we not using plant based packaging for some of this stuff!? I have researched sending to TerraCycle, but so expensive. “Bear Naked Granola” claims they just invented recycleable pouches, but where do we send them, especially if stores aren’t participating? I think I will call Trader Joe’s, since they have so much plastic packaging and see if they have any collections currently. Anyone please share any Co-Ops in the Bay Area where you can buy in bulk. Thanks for being here to field our questions/concerns!

    • Leaving bags outside for dog owners is a great idea that promotes the reuse of these bags. Unfortunately, plant-based packaging won’t solve all of our problems as many bioplastics do not break down well in composting facilities.
      I recommend calling the stores you shop at and letting them know that you want them to change their packaging.
      Let us know if you have any questions! Happy to help.

  9. To the extent possible, I’ve lived plastic-free for decades. I avoid products, including produce, which are packaged in plastic. I shop at El Cerrito Natural Grocery. I always bring my own canvas tote bags and leave them in the car while shopping. In the store’s produce dept, I place everything LOOSE (not in bags) in my grocery cart; at checkout, I explain that I’ll bag everything myself when I get to my car. I urge others to do likewise, wherever you shop. Alas, ECNG’s marvelous bulk aisle—like bulk aisles everywhere– is now, during the pandemic, no longer bulk; everything has been prepackaged in little biodegradable, non-compostable plastic bags which are at least plant-based and break down in landfill.

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