No Bags in the Bin

Waste Management in West Jordan, Utah shuts down 3 to 4 times per day to clean out plastic bags from their machinery gears. 

Photo credit to Troy Setterberg, Waste Management.

You’ve probably heard that plastic bags aren’t great for the environment – they get eaten by sea life and they take up to 1000 years to break down – but did you know that they also aren’t great for recycling systems?

When your curbside recycling gets picked up, it’s taken to a Material Recovery Facility (or MRF for short). MRFs are what the general public probably thinks of as recycling plants, but they only handle one important piece of the recycling process – the sorting. Curbside trucks unload consumer’s recyclables onto long, dusty conveyor belts. As the conveyors move around the facility, items are sifted through to recover materials that have resale value in the post-consumer market. High value materials include glass, metal, cartons and some plastics. Unidentifiable materials, items trapped in a bag, and anything contaminated – in some cases nearly 50% of what is sent to the MRF – is sifted out and heads to the landfill. 

Plastic bags fall into a category of plastics known as “film,” which includes other things like plastic wrappers, thin plastic packaging and food storage bags. During the sorting process, plastic bags get caught in the machinery, and can cause the whole facility to shut down. In fact, this happens three times a day or more in Waste Management’s MRF in West Jordan (pictured above). Workers have to spend hours freeing the shredded plastic bags from the gears, which takes time away from sorting valuable materials.

Contamination caused by plastic bags and wrappers is also a huge problem. Plastic bags are lightweight, and can become entangled around valuable materials like paper or cardboard, which contaminates the final product. 

Here’s how you can help:

  1. Bring your own reusable bag to the store.
  2. Request for paper rather than plastic (it does take more energy to produce paper bags, but they break down way faster and are easily recycled, so in the end they’re better for the environment than plastic). To see more details about paper vs. plastic, click here.
  3. If you do end up with a plastic bag, recycle it at your local grocery store, reuse it, or dispose of it in the garbage. Whatever you do, do not put the bag in your curbside recycling bin!
Most large scale residential recycling facilities will not accept recyclables if they are in a plastic trash bag. However, please note that some companies require you to bag your recycling. Check with your local provider to be sure!