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Plastic Bag Recycling in Massachusetts: What's Really Happening?

I was recently alarmed by ABC News' recent report asserting that certain major retailers who accept plastic bags for recycling are simply disposing of the bags in landfills or incinerators or shipping them overseas to polluting facilities in Southeast Asia. 

This is an important issue because many local and state legislatures are considering bans on plastic bags and other single-use plastics. Moreover, advocacy organizations are calling for the federal government to limit plastic production and use, which promises to disrupt a wide swath of our economy, particularly packaging. To learn more about what's really happening with plastic bag recycling in my community, I decided to look into how and where plastic bags are actually being recycled, a key element noticeably missing from the ABC report.

To find out what happens to plastic bags (also referred to as “film”) put into a recycling container at your local retailer (including dutifully by my wife and I at our local Stop & Shop), I asked Gretchen Carey, President of MassRecycle, who is also a LEED Green Associate and Zero Waste TRUE Advisor. According to Gretchen, “There is an enormous amount of plastic film created every day due to the way we live: from the grocery store, dry cleaning, businesses, you name it. In some parts of the country, this material has value. Here in New England, it is generally considered trash due to the lack of local markets. Recycling facilities don’t want it in the bin because of the damage it does to their mechanical systems.”

However, Gretchen was glad to share that there is at least one established outlet for plastic film here in New England. “Trex has been a buyer of this material for years, and has established collection systems in large retail stores. The retailer collects the material, backhauls it in tractor-trailer trucks to its own distribution center and bales it into 1,000-pound bales for easy handling. Trex will purchase the bales once the retailer has forty bales of material (a full truck) available for pick-up. At the Trex manufacturing site, Trex mixes the plastic with sawdust left over from cabinet manufacturing to create a composite lumber for products such as decking and park bench seats.”

In addition to interviewing Gretchen, I did a bit of my own research, and was glad to find that Stop & Shop in Massachusetts participates in the Trex system.  However, this does not address what ABC reported, that certain other retailers appear to be disposing of the plastic bags they collect here in the U.S. or sending them overseas to polluting recycling facilities.  

Gretchen noted that “Plastic is a material that will last for decades, and yet we most often use it in situations where its intended life ranges from months to hours. This includes grocery bags, dry cleaning bags, plastic mailers and Ziploc baggies.  While accumulating plastic grocery bags is easily avoided by using a reusable bag, other items like the shrink wrap on multipacks of bottled drinks and shipping packaging is harder to avoid.” For these reasons and those cited in the ABC report, Gretchen recommends that consumers here in New England take their plastic film to a retailer listed as participating in the Trex program. “If you don’t want to be greenwashed, recycle plastic film with Trex. Otherwise, if you are trying to do the right thing with this material and find out they were lying about where it went, it can be soul-crushing.”

Clearly, something more needs to happen with plastics, particularly film and bags.  As discussed in my blog post on the “Persistent Problem of Waste,” the MassDEP has a number of powerful tools it can use to direct how waste and recyclables are managed. Most recently it has banned the disposal of mattresses and textiles and tightened up its ban on the disposal of food waste from institutions and restaurants. 

While its decades-old ban on the disposal of single polymer plastics helped spawn the robust recycling infrastructure of those materials in the state, it has not taken on the more vexing problem of mixed plastics, including plastic bags and film.  Perhaps now is the time for the Commonwealth to do so.