A lot of people are skeptical about recycling. They suspect that most of the stuff they put into their recycling bins ends up in landfills.
Local newspapers and TV stations often try to help debunk that misconception by doing stories about what happens to recyclables. Waste haulers, materials recovery facilities and recyclers are happy to cooperate. They open their doors and show reporters what really happens.
Those stories typically reinforce that there really is a market for recyclables, especially PET and high density polyethylene bottles, aluminum cans and some paperboard. But what about the stuff that isn't typically recycled? How can reporters track that stuff? Now relatively low-cost Bluetooth trackers like AirTags are helping reporters tell those stories, too.
The first came back in February, when Reuters looked at athletic shoes that were being collected in Singapore. Dow Inc. had announced in 2021 that, working with local partners, it had established a "permanent shoe waste collection ecosystem" that would recycle up to 170,000 pairs of used shoes per year, using the soles and midsoles to make jogging tracks and playgrounds.
Reuters tracked 11 pairs of shoes over six months and found that most ended up at a second-hand goods exporter. None ended up being recycled into sports fields.
That story surprised me, but it didn't seem like a massive scandal. If anything, I thought that it prompted a healthy debate about the merits of reuse and recycling. And it also reminded Dow to keep a closer eye on its recycling partners.
Reporters' next target — plastic bags and flexible packaging — should not have been a surprise.
Working independently, both ABC News and the nonprofit environmental group The Last Beach Cleanup put trackers in plastic film that had been placed in retail drop-off locations. For ABC News, nine local television stations in different parts of the country placed 46 trackers in bundles of plastic bags, which were placed in drop-off bins at Walmart and Target stores.
Of the 46 trackers, just four ended up in facilities that recycle plastic bags. Half ended up at landfills or incinerators. Unfortunately, ABC's report, "Trashed: The Secret Life of Plastic Recycling," reinforced public skepticism about recycling.
Jan Dell of The Last Beach Cleanup put 15 trackers at plastic bag drop-off locations. Eleven ended up in landfills or waste transfer stations and another went to an incinerator. Dell called the store drop-off bins a "massive greenwashing scheme to make flexible plastics seem recyclable."
The bag recycling stories had a bigger impact on me. I've been editorializing about film and bag recycling for a long time. Seeing the story prompted me to go back and review what I've written on the topic.
In 2008, I wrote that "groceries and plastic bag suppliers are getting serious about bag recycling." But I concluded: "Let's hope they're serious and it's not too late — not just to save the plastic bag sector, but to keep our oceans and countryside from choking on bag trash."
A few months later, I editorialized about the Full Circle Recycling Initiative, which the four largest U.S. bag makers and the American Chemistry Council had announced on Earth Day in 2008. They set a goal to use 40 percent recycled content in their single-use bags by 2015.
I wrote: "I don't think it's too late to save plastic bags," and called for retailers to get serious about film recycling. "They need to improve the signage and location on bag-collection bins and do some promotion of those efforts."
Later that year, after California legislators had tabled a proposal to put a 25-cent fee on single-use bags, I wrote that PN readers shouldn't be surprised if bag taxes and bans resurfaced in the future.
I wrote: "The bottom line is that bag companies will need to redouble their efforts to keep the promises they've made this year in order to hold back the tide against more taxes and bans next year."
By 2013, bag bans were back, and I wrote that "some plastics processors are pulling out all the stops to recycle plastic bags."
"Plastic bag recycling got off to a slow start. For too long, the plastics industry battled bag bans by talking about the advantages of source reduction and energy savings (vs. paper bags), hygiene (vs. reusable bags) and pocketbook issues like the importance of plastics industry jobs. Now that recycling is real and successful, we'll see if it's too late," I wrote.
Looking back at these columns, I'm seeing a trend. Bag makers feel pressure, make promises to improve their recycling record, and each time I write that I hope it isn't too late.
In July 2020, I wrote about a three-year project called the Beyond the Bag Initiative, supported by retailers, to come up with a solution to plastic bag issues.
"This seems like a great idea, assuming this is 1990. Coming in 2020, I have a feeling this ship has sailed, and the plastics industry missed the boat," I wrote. "Single-use bags are convenient, reusable and recyclable. But not enough people recycle them, and they too frequently end up as litter. If we can't recycle T-shirt bags, what hope is there to recycle other flexible packaging?"
There's more — it was eye-opening for me just how frequently I've editorialized about single-use bags. I don't think this will be the last time, but it seems like a milestone, because with the Bluetooth trackers, I'm wondering how much longer retailers will be able to defend offering customers free plastic bags.
The sad part is that film and bags can be recycled. We've documented that in numerous stories over the years. But the economics aren't friendly right now, and if the plastics packaging sector wants film recycling to be successful, it has a lot of work to do.
Don Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.