Despite complaints from recyclers, Washington bag ban fails

Mike Verespej

Published: February 14, 2012 6:00 am ET

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Topics Packaging, Sustainability, Public Policy, Materials, Film & Sheet, Recycling, Suppliers

OLYMPIA, WASH. (Feb. 14, 11:20 p.m. ET) — For the second straight year, a  legislative initiative to ban plastic bags in the state of Washington has died in committee.

But a new report issued Feb. 14 by the Environment Washington Research and Policy Center charges that industry claims about the recyclability of plastic bags don't mesh with its study, which found that less than 5 percent of the plastic bags used annually in the U.S. are recycled.

The report further charged that even those bags which do get recycled can cause problems at recycling facilities because they get caught in the machinery, and said that more than 70 percent of the 21 cities and counties that responded to its survey "want disposable bags out of the waste system."

"Almost 60 percent of Washington's recycling facilities do not even accept plastic bags," said the report. "Of those facilities [that do accept plastic bags], 83 percent reported that their recycling stream was contaminated with plastic bags, and that it was causing problems [because] they get tangled in recyclers' machinery, causing plants to shut down. Many recycling plants, including the Cascade Recycling Center, said they are forced to shut down mutliple times a day to remove plastic bags from their machinery."

"The biggest problem mentioned by recyclers," said the report, "is that the thin plastic bags wrap around gears in the recycling machinery. This clogs the screens that separate the incoming waste, and without effective screens, materials go to the wrong place, causing contamination in the recycling stream."

"Bags ... clog our screens, are difficult to remove economically, and end up being a contaminant in our outbound products," said John Lucini of SP Recycling Group, one of the respondants to the survey. [Removing bags] would improve productivity and efficiency of our equipment, reduce residue to dispose of, allow sorters to focus on other valuable items in the incoming stream, and improve quality of outgoing products."

"Some recycling plants in Washington estimate [that they are] spending 20-to-30 percent of their labor costs removing plastic bags from their machinery [costing them] on the order of $1,000 per day," said the report. "Many facilities  in Washington report that plastic bags waste money and efficiency, decrease the value of other recycled goods, and pose safety threats to their workers [as] workers have to crawl into the machines with box cutter knives to cut them [the bags] out."

The report did not estimate what percentage of the 2 billion plastic bags used in the state of Washington are recycled.

But it noted that according to the Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery of the Environmental Protection Agency, only 4.3 percent of all plastic bags in the U.S. were recycled in 2010, down almost two percent from the recycling rate of 6.1 percent for plastic bags the previous year. "This is not only a decrease in the proportion of bags recycled, but also a decrease in actual bags recycled," said the report. "In 2010, 10,000 more tons of plastic bags ended up in landfills than in 2009."

'Nothing we use for a few minutes should end up contaminating our oceans for hundreds of year," said the report. "Washington's civic leaders should ban single-use plastic bags because recycling efforts have proven inadequate."

Currently, four cities in the state of Washington — Seattle, Bellingham, Edmonds and Mukilteo — have plastic bag bans.


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Despite complaints from recyclers, Washington bag ban fails

Mike Verespej

Published: February 14, 2012 6:00 am ET

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