I got an email today at work about plastic bags and why don't we accept them in our curbside recycling program. The answer took me more than an hour to write and I think it has some great links, so I thought I'd re-post it here. If you have any questions, feel free to email me or leave them in the comments.
Thank you for your email and your concern about plastic bags. Yes, we're well aware of the damage plastic bags have on the environment. In fact, at the Home and Garden Idea Fair that we were at last weekend, we were trying to raise awareness of this issue with a display that depicts the average amount of plastic bags used by consumers each year and we gave away free reusable tote bags and decals that say "Got Bag?" (a program of Leadership Clark County) to fair-goers.
However, the problem is not as simple as us accepting plastic bags for recycling. Plastic bags cause huge problems for recycling plants. Here is a great article that very accurately portrays the problems we're up against when it comes to plastic bags. (author note: actually, I linked originally to page 2, which I think has more to say about specific recycling issues.) Recyclers across the nation all have this exact same problem with plastic bags. In some parts of the country, they are accepted curbside and in others (like here) they're not. Regardless of whether or not they are an "accepted" item, they still get into the recycling stream.
I'll give you an example. In Portland, they do not accept plastic bags in their curbside recycling program, either. However, the plant that sorts all of their recycling gets enough plastic bags (that never should have been in there in the first place) that they have to shut down the equipment every two hours and send someone in with a box cutter to manually cut the plastic bags out of the machinery. This equates to an estimated 25% capacity reduction for them.
The problem of plastic bags was also featured on the front page of our newsletter. There is a picture of a sorting screen badly clogged with plastic bags. I just talked to one of the materials recovery facility staff and he said that he conservatively estimates that he sends out 60+ tons of plastic bags a month-if he has a buyer for them. That's the other piece of the recycling puzzle-anything that we collect for recycling has to then be delivered to someone who can actually recycle it economically. In a lot of cases, this means shipping our recycling overseas.
Here's two more articles that just came in my inbox (weird/good timing) about plastic bags.
Honestly, the best possible answer is that people don't use plastic bags in the first place. Reusable shopping totes are an inexpensive way to avoid ever using a plastic bag again. I wish everyone understood the damage that plastic bags can do to wildlife and habitat. Perhaps more of us would be willing to make the switch to reusable shopping bags, if that were the case. For any plastic bags that you do have that you don't want, returning them to a grocery store is the second best way to dispose of them-this ensures clean plastic bags that can then be recycled.
I hope this explains some of the reasons we don't accept plastic bags curbside. We do, however accept them at our transfer stations-again, it being a case of clean bags that never have a chance to damage machinery.
If you have any other questions, feel free to contact me.