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Reggie the Recycling Raccoon says ‘Plastic bags are trash and are not recyclable’

Courtesy photo. One day's plastic at WWRA.
Courtesy photo. One day’s plastic at WWRA.
Courtesy photo. Plastic bags wound into the sorting line.
Courtesy photo. Plastic bags wound into the sorting line.

(Chelsea Update would like to thank Frank Hammer for the information in this column.)

Plastic bags.

We use them to hold our produce, bag our groceries, keep our bread fresh, protect our home-delivery newspapers, and cover our dry cleaning.

Many people think plastic bags and other soft flexible plastics are recyclable.  And, there was a time when that was true, but not any longer.

Remember from last week’s column – recycling is the capture of marketable materials, which Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority (WWRA) sells; while trash is the disposal of things no longer useful? During the last 15 years, plastic bags and other flexible plastics have moved into the second category as the market for them has collapsed.

This situation may be confusing for people involved with WWRA for a long time because before 1999, there was a market for these bags. However, as the use of plastic bags became more lucrative, more and more suppliers stepped in, each with their own idea of how the bags should be made. Thus, several different plastics were introduced – but none of them are recyclable.

Courtesy photo. Torn sorting line rubber fingers, which are circled.
Courtesy photo. Torn sorting line rubber fingers, which are circled.

Various businesses, such as Polly’s County Market in Chelsea, offer customers a place to get rid of their plastic bags, which are then taken to the landfill.

But here’s the real problem with these plastic bags. When you try to recycle one, it creates big problems for WWRA. The machinery that supports single-stream recycling does not like plastic bags. They catch in the sorting system. They wind around rollers. They snag on everything, and they sometimes break off important parts of the machinery.

The labor costs of “untangling” the plastic bags every day, which takes approximately 2 hours, adds up to more than $200 per month — and that’s just to cut out the tangled bags. When a vital piece of machinery gets broken, there is a huge replacement cost, and it often also creates work stoppage while the new part is installed.

Courtesy photo. Other types of non-recyclable plastic bags.
Courtesy photo. Other types of non-recyclable plastic bags.

The rubber fingers in the photo are the sorting pieces that separate paper from all other recycling. Plastic bags rip off these fingers. Replacing the rubber fingers on one shaft costs $1,800 and there are 20 of those shafts. Plus, it takes three men 3-to-4 hours to remove and re-install one shaft and replace all the parts. Currently, WWRA replaces one or two shafts a month.

Additional examples of plastic bags that are not recyclable: Water softener bags, sidewalk salt bags, pea gravel and sand bags and dog food bags.

Keep in mind that plastic bags are just one form of the flexible plastics that cannot be recycled. Others include Visqueen, plastic paint drop cloths, shower curtains, bubble wrap and plastic covers of all kinds.

Courtesy photo. Reggie the Recycling Racoon.
Courtesy photo. Reggie the Recycling Racoon.

Reggie Raccoon’s Royal Recycling Review: 
Recycling puts materials back into use; trash is for things that cannot be used again.

Plastic bags go in the trash, not in the recycling bins.

(Next week, we’ll look at reuses for those plastic bags and other flexible plastics — before you put them in the trash.)

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2 thoughts on “Reggie the Recycling Raccoon says ‘Plastic bags are trash and are not recyclable’”

  1. These articles are great! being a chemist, I know what the composition of the plastics are and therefore, are not able to be recycled. BUT I didn’t know that LIDS ARE NOT recyclable! (maybe some I had were #2 and I assumed all of them were)

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