Whether you love them or hate them, plastic bags are part of our daily lives. While use of some forms of bags is restricted in Northampton and Amherst, other forms remain unrestricted. Plastic bags continue to surround our delivered newspapers, purchased bread, and dry cleaning. The good news is that most plastic bags are reusable, and many forms can be recycled. The key is that they must be delivered to special plastic bag recycling collection sites, such as those found locally at Big Y, Stop and Shop and Target. Please do not place plastic bags in your standard household recycling mix!
If you put them into your standard recycling bin, they get dirty, clog the machinery, and cause costly shutdowns. In fact, our local recycling processing plant, the Springfield Materials Recycling Facility , says that plastic bags winding around sorting machinery is their number one problem. If you have ever vacuumed up a length of ribbon or moved a lawnmower over a piece of rope, you will understand why.
So while the convenience of recycling plastic bags along with our cans and bottles is attractive, please refrain. In order to maintain a strong recycling industry, it is critical to eliminate undesirables in household recycling (visit springfieldmrf.org to learn more).
Polyethylene, the plastic resin used in many varieties of plastic bags and wraps, is useful to some manufacturers in the production of pallets, crates and composite wood decking material. The types of plastic bags wanted by the plastic film recycling industry include bread bags, shopping bags, dry cleaning bags and sealable food storage bags. Air pillows from shipping (deflate first), case wrap (e.g. the shrink wrapping found around cases of bottled water), and bubble wrap, are also polyethylene-based, recyclable plastic.
Before depositing them in designated bag recycling boxes, all bags and wraps must be clean and dry, and free of food, metal, and paper (e.g. staples and receipts). Details about which forms of plastic film are recyclable and which are not are provided at plasticfilmrecycling.org. The website also provides useful graphics and a zip code-based drop-off directory. To identify recyclable bags and wraps, look for material that is fairly stretchy. Polyethylene plastic is found in multiple thicknesses, but all of it stretches when pulled with bare hands, and sharp objects will puncture it easily.
Some forms of plastic bags and wraps are NOT desired by manufacturers. The types that tear easily, such as candy wrappers and chip bags, are made of a different kind of plastic, or are created from a mix of materials. Similarly, compostable and biodegradable bags don’t belong in a plastic film recycling mix, as they introduce contaminants like potato and cornstarch.
Of course, it is best to avoid generating disposable bags in the first place. Getting into the habit of reusing and washing durable bags, like those produced by the local BagShare Project reduces the need for disposables and eliminates the resources used and pollution created by the recycling process. Single use plastic bag reduction efforts via legislation are becoming more commonplace. Amherst, Brookline, Cambridge, Great Barrington and Northampton have plastic bag restrictions, and Boston’s ordinance will take effect later this year.
Communities in over 15 other states have legislated plastic bag reduction programs, along with dozens of countries, including Australia, China, Ireland, India, Kenya and the United Kingdom.
There is still a lot of plastic film that can — and should — be captured for recycling. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that over 5 trillion single-use bags are consumed worldwide each year, yet less than five percent of them are recycled. Taking your plastic bags to a designated collection site is the first step in increasing that number.
We can do this, Western Mass!
Susan Waite is the waste reduction coordinator for the Northampton Department of Public Works.