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Plastics 101: A Series on Plastic Recycling Part 1: The Life of a Plastic Bag

plastic bagI have frequently wondered what happens to the plastics placed in Oklahoma’s recycle bins. Is it actually being recycled? What happens if a plastic bag is placed with plastic #3? What does plastic #3 really mean anyway? These questions pushed me to understand more about plastic recycling.  My research into plastics is too lengthy for a single blog post; therefore, I have partitioned the story into three sections. Part one focuses on the life cycle of a plastic bag.

As Americans, we throw away approximately 100 billion plastic bags annually and less than 5 percent of all plastic bags used are recycled. Yep – less than 5 percent. It is estimated that 1 trillion bags are used each year around the world, which equates to approximately 1 million bags every minute.  46,000 pieces of plastic are floating in our oceans and 3.5 million tons of plastic were disposed of in 2008.

Plastic bags were first introduced into stores in 1977. A product of crude oil, natural gas, and other molecules[i], plastics bags were lauded for being cheap to manufacture and purchase, as well as convenient for carrying groceries. However, anything made from petroleum products brings with it the problem of disposal. Plastic bags are not biodegradable.

Four things can happen to used plastic bags:

  1. They can fill and contaminate a landfill.
  2. They might be recycled here in America.
  3. They could be exported to an overseas recycling market.
  4. They might be reused by the consumer.

The can fill and contaminate a landfill
This happens when plastic bags simply end up in the trash. It takes 1,000 years for a plastic bag to decompose, but it never completely biodegrades. Instead, sunlight breaks down the plastic into small contaminating bits that weasel their way into soil and marine life.

They might be recycled here in America
Based on the petroleum and other complex molecules plastic bags are made of, they are coded as a mix of plastic #4 and plastic #2[ii]. However, placing plastic bags inside your cities’ recycle bin will cause the recycling machines to clog and malfunction. Therefore, plastic bags are only accepted at certain locations. You can enter your zip code at the plasticfilmrecycling.org for locations near you.

Notice that this website refers to plastic film. Yes, plastic bags often fall into a larger category called plastic film. Usually locations that accept plastic bags (call ahead to inquire first) will also accept the following plastic items you were never quite sure what to do with:

  • Bread bags
  • The thin packaging around napkins, paper towels, bathroom tissue paper, and diaper wrap
  • Case wrap (like the plastic film around water bottles)
  • Produce bags
  • Newspaper bags
  • Air pillows
  • The thin plastic dry cleaning bags around your clothes
  • Cereal box liners
  • Sealable food storage bags (no food inside!)
  • Shipping envelopes

According to Wal-Mart, once the plastic bag recycle bins are full, they are picked up by an outside recycling company and transported to regional recycling centers. I have contacted Wal-Mart for more information and will provide you with an update when I hear back from them.  Target and Lowes are also popular retailers that offer plastic bag and film recycling.

So what are these plastic bags and films recycled into? One type of product is composite wood which can be used to make outdoor decks, window and door frames.  Other possible items your plastic bags might turn into include: garden products, crates, pipe, and new film packaging.

According to multiple sources, it is challenging to recycle plastics. First, it is costly to collect and sort through plastics. It costs $4,000 dollars just to recycle one ton of plastic. The recycled product can then be turned around and sold for just $32.00, according to the Clean Air Council.   Recycling plastics also releases many greenhouse gas emissions, harming the environment. Recycling plastics can also be difficult because after all, it is an economic market. If there are buyers for recycled plastics, then the plastics will likely be recycled, if there are no buyers for the product……then the plastic might end up in a landfill anyway.

Exported to an overseas recycling market
A lot of our plastic bags are shipped to China for recycling and reuse. However, as explained at myplasticfreelife.com, entire communities might be hurt by emissions from the recycling process there.

Reused by the consumer
Many consumers find ways to reuse plastic bags at home. For example, some may use them as trash can liners and others to pick up their dog’s poop. You could also bring them with you to the store for reuse. For those of you with a crafty side, visit this website for cool ways to reuse your bags.

Tips for Reduction of Plastic Bag Use:
1)      Get reusable bags
2)      When you purchase only 1 or 2 items at the store, decline the bag. You can carry those items out in your hand.
3)      Go to stores that don’t use plastic bags


[i] Approximately 12 million barrels of oil are used annually to make plastic bags. (Americans consume 18 million barrels of oil per day)

[ii] I’ll explain more about what plastic numbers actually mean in my next two posts

Photo Credit- EdinburghGreens

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Amanda Marcott-Thottunkal is a freelance writer in Norman. In 2013, she graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a Master’s degree in Public Administration. Amanda is concerned about environmental policies and the effects legislation has on creating a cleaner, greener Oklahoma. She is constantly searching out ways to make her life more eco-friendly and wants to share green living tips with others. She lives with her husband and two cats.

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