For the second straight year, a legislative initiative to ban plastic bags in the state of Washington has died in committee.
But a report issued Feb. 14 by the Environment Washington Research & Policy Center charges that industry claims about the recyclability of plastic bags don't mesh with its study, titled “A Solution Not in the Bag.”
Environment Washington is a statewide, citizen-based environmental advocacy organization.
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 from the recycling rate of 6.1 percent for all plastic bags the previous year.
The report charged that even those bags that do get recycled can cause problems at recycling facilities because they get caught in the machinery. More than 70 percent of the 21 cities and counties that responded to its survey “want disposable bags out of the waste system,” it claimed.
“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.”
The report stated that the biggest problem was with bags wrapping around gears in the machinery, which clog the screens that separate incoming waste. If screens are not effective and materials go to the wrong place, contamination of the recycling stream can result.
“Bags ... 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 respondents 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 [they are] spending 20-30 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 [the bags] out.”
The report did not estimate what percentage of the 2 billion plastic bags used in the state of Washington are recycled.
“In 2010, 10,000 more tons of plastic bags ended up in landfills than in 2009,” the report said. “This is not only a decrease in the proportion of bags recycled, but also a decrease in actual bags recycled.
“Nothing we use for a few minutes should end up contaminating our oceans for hundreds of years. Washington's civic leaders should ban single-use plastic bags because recycling efforts have proven inadequate.”
The report encouraged people to bring their own bags and work toward a single-use plastic bag ban.
Four cities in the state of Washington — Seattle, Bellingham, Edmonds and Mukilteo — have instituted plastic bag bans.