It’s in the bag…

plastic bags

Do you remember life before plastic grocery bags? When “produce bags” meant small brown paper bags and we wrapped sandwiches in waxed paper bags?  For most of us, these are distant memories, if that.  Plastic grocery bags first hit U.S. supermarkets in 1979 after taking European markets by storm in the 1960s. Since then we’ve developed a serious plastic bag habit.  Today, we use about 100 billion plastic bags each year in the U.S., with the average lifespan of just 12 minutes per bag. Made from low cost, fossil-fuel derived plastic, the environmental impacts of our plastic bag obsession were raised as early as 1986.  Every year, plastic retail bags are among the top 10 items found on beaches and waterways worldwide during the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup (ICC). And despite a growing number of “bag ban” laws adopted by cities and towns in Massachusetts and across the country, plastic bags and wrap are still pretty ubiquitous. So what’s a “smart recycler” to do?

Love ‘em or hate ‘em …

No matter where you stand on plastic bags, there’s a couple things we should all agree on:

  1. Plastic bags do NOT belong in the household recycling stream. Plastic bags and plastic wrap (collectively known as “plastic film” in recycling industry short-hand) are the number one problem at recycling facilities because they wrap around sorting machinery, shutting down the sorting line often multiple times per day. Check out this short video about plastic bags and other tanglers at the recycling sorting facility.
  2. Reducing and reusing is best.  At the grocery store, pharmacy, or anywhere you’re shopping, using reusable grocery bags and produce bags (or even opting for no bag if you are only picking up a few items you can easily carry), is always the best way to go. You can also reuse plastic bags to clean up after your pets or to line small trash cans.
  3. Plastic bags and wrap SHOULD be recycled … at drop-off collection bins in most supermarkets. Even if you’ve sworn off plastic grocery bags there’s still a lot of plastic film in your fridge, pantry and utility closet. And while it’s not as convenient as recycling at the curb, we think it’s worth the extra effort to collect and recycle plastic film at your local collection site.

Plastic Film Recycling Guide

Is it REALLY recycled?

Plastic waste has gotten a bad rap and for good reason.  Plastic recycling programs have been in the crosshairs lately, with criticism that only 9% of plastic waste is ever recycled.  “Plastic waste” refers to a vast array of products – everything from computer housings and lawn furniture to diapers and medical devices.  About 40% of “plastic waste” is actually plastic packaging (think shampoo bottles, yogurt tubs, peanut butter jars, detergent jugs, bags and pouches).  And thankfully, a lot of that plastic packaging is readily recyclable here in Massachusetts.

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that even with recycling programs in place, we still send thousands of tons of plastic bottles, jars and jugs – not to mention plastic bags and wrap – to landfills and incinerators in Massachusetts every year.  And that’s a real shame, especially since there are companies across the U.S. that want to buy old plastic bottles and yogurt containers to make new products like carpet, fleece clothing, soda bottles, milk crates, trash bags and more.  A new report from Closed Loop Partners confirms that the demand for recycled plastic (aka post-consumer resin or PCR)  far outstrips what U.S. recycling programs are collecting.  The report points out that only 18% of plastic packaging is being recycled; the rest is getting tossed in our collective trash bins – at home, school and work.  It’s time to double down on recycling ALL the plastic containers and bags we can.

What does all this have to do with plastic bags and wrap?  There’s also a growing demand for recycled plastic film from companies like TrexNovolex and EFS Plastics, that purchase it from supermarkets and big box retailers and turn it into a manufacturing feedstock to make new products.  Why retailers?  Retailers generate a lot of pallet wrap and shrink wrap that comes with product deliveries.  Instead of trashing it, they bale it (compress into large cubes) and sell to plastic recyclers.  The bags and wrap collected from the public in the front-of-store bins are combined with the back-of-house plastic film. By recycling, instead of trashing this plastic, they’re saving money and putting waste plastic back into circulation, making it a win-win for everyone.

In 2020, Trex recycled 12.6 million pounds of post-consumer bags and wrap from their New England retail partners.  This material goes to their Winchester, VA facility where it is processed, mixed with reclaimed wood, and made into composite lumber and decking. Chances are, your local supermarket sends their plastic film to Trex, but you can check here to find out.

Beyond the Bag?

A consortium of large retailers recently announced an initiative they are calling Beyond the Bag, a three year project that aims to identify and implement innovative alternatives to the single-use plastic retail bag.  In February, they announced the nine winners of the Beyond the Bag Challenge who will work with the Consortium to develop prototypes and test their design ideas ranging from reusable packaging systems to bags made from seaweed.  In another twist, Walmart announced that its Vermont stores are going “bagless”.   Vermont’s state law prohibiting single-use plastic bags at stores and restaurants took effect on July 1, 2020.

Earth Day Challenge:

Bottom line, it’s going to take a lot of smart minds, political will, community engagement and corporate and individual commitment to lessen our dependence on plastic bags.  In honor of Earth Day, we propose a challenge to our readers:

  • Set a goal for reducing plastic bag use (maybe that means taking your reusable bag to the pharmacy or retail store, not just the grocery store)
  • Start collecting plastic wrap and bags to recycle at your local retailer (Pro-tip)  a bagel bag or other tubular bag makes a good collection container – you can stuff a lot of plastic film in there!
  • If your favorite grocery store doesn’t collect plastic bags, talk to the manager and ask them to start.
  • Share this newsletter with a friend or neighbor. 

Partner Spotlight: Center for EcoTechnology (CET)

EcoBuilding BargainsEcoBuilding Bargains (Springfield, MA) is the first and largest reclaimed and surplus building-materials store in New England. This reuse center run by CET is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and gives a second life to used cabinets, lighting, plumbing fixtures, and other building materials.

This year the  Center for EcoTechnology (CET) celebrates its 45th birthday. CET is an environmental non-profit helping people and businesses save energy and reduce waste. Successfully implementing and strengthening waste reduction programs for businesses and institutions of all sizes, CET has partnered with MassDEP for over the last two decades, administering both RecyclingWorks in Massachusetts (RecyclingWorks) and THE GREEN TEAM. In 2018, CET was one of the first non-profits to sign on as a Recycle Smart MA partner.

John Majercak, president of CET, recently told BusinessWest how proud he is of the team at CET – “They’ve always been real innovators and have helped change the way things work [….] The key is to meet people where they are and help them either solve a problem or achieve a goal” he said. “If you’re a small business, your goal may be to save money and have your business perform better. Energy efficiency, as well as waste and recycling management, can help you reach that goal.”

CET Technical AssistanceHeather Billings from CET provides free technical assistance to help MA restaurants cut down their food waste and improve their recycling programs through the Recycling Works program.

By incorporating Recycle Smart Guidance into the RecyclingWorks and THE GREEN TEAM programs, CET has helped businesses, institutions and K-12 schools across the state improve their recycling programs

Using their engaging online presence, CET helps bolster the Recycle Smart MA platform; including the Recyclopedia search tool on their website, producing social media content to point people to Recycle Smart MA resources, and even mentioning Recycle Smart in their appearances on Mass Appeal, their local NBC morning show. This past year, CET also hosted several webinars featuring Recycle Smart MA materials including the June 2020 webinar, Recycling 101 for Multifamily Property Managers and December 2020 webinar about best practices for holiday recycling.

Finally, CET is a leader in addressing wasted building materials. EcoBuilding Bargains, the Center for EcoTechnology’s reuse store, is the largest reclaimed and surplus building materials store in New England. EcoBuilding Bargains which sells reclaimed building materials both in their Springfield store and online, helps make home improvements more affordable and prevents perfectly good building materials from going to landfills or incinerators.
All combined, in 2020 CET was able to divert over 26,000 tons of waste from landfills – enough to fill nearly 6,000 dumpsters! Way to go CET and Happy Birthday from the Recycle Smart team and MassDEP.

Home Composting for Zero Waste:

Everything You Wanted to Know about Composting but Were Afraid to Ask

Earth Day Composting Workshop

In honor of Earth Day, MassDEP will be hosting a composting webinar on April 20, 2021 at 7pm! 

Home composting is easier than people might think. Most of the work is done by nature’s composting work force (decomposers), and all we have to do is feed them our food scraps and yard waste, give them air, water, and a place to live, and they’ll do the work of converting our “garbage” into “gold” for our gardens – black gold. Compost restores life to soil and helps plants thrive. You can singlehandedly reduce your trash to practically zero if you compost, reduce, reuse, and recycle! Advanced registration required.

Only 40 slots remaining! Don’t wait.
(P.S. If we fill up, you can watch the webinar recording).

📚 What We're Reading

Happy Earth Day,

The Recycle Smart MA Team at MassDEP