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Opinion: Plastic bags are recyclable — just be sure to recycle right


Bridget Sanderson of Environment Missouri recently penned an op-ed calling plastic bags “fundamentally not recyclable.” However, the central claim of Ms. Sanderson’s piece is simply untrue — plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable as long as they are recycled correctly. Pushing out this misinformation undermines efforts to improve recycling rates and move our economy in a more sustainable direction.

To set the record straight, recycling plastic bags is easy. All consumers need to do is take them with you the next time you to go to the supermarket or major retail store, such as Schnucks, Hy-Vee, Walmart, or Target. Simply place your plastic bags in the plastic bag recycling bin near the front of the store. 

In addition, many other materials can be recycled in these plastic bag recycling bins. As the vast majority of holiday shopping was online due to the pandemic, Missourians may find themselves with piles of packaging that rivaled their stacks of presents. The increasingly ubiquitous air pillows, films, and wraps employed to keep online purchases clean and safe during transit are also typically recyclable alongside grocery bags in plastic bag recycling bins.

To verify if plastic bags and films are indeed recyclable, consumers just need to look for the #2 HDPE or #4 LDPE recycling symbol. Commonly accepted items in store drop-off bins also include bubble wrap, bread bags, dry cleaning bags, newspaper bags, produce bags, plastic wrap around toilet paper or paper towels, and other stretchy film plastics. 

These returned plastic bags and film may go back to plastic bag manufacturers who turn them into new grocery bags. Alternatively, they could go to other companies who turn them into composite lumber, playground equipment, railroad ties, or asphalt. 

These end markets would not be possible without the significant investment made over the years by the American plastic bag industry in plastic film recycling infrastructure, which helps keeps these products out of the landfill. Earlier this year, manufacturers committed to increasing the amount of recycled content in plastic retail bags made in the U.S. and also set new targets for recycling and reuse rates.

So as environmental activists spread misinformation, the industry is hard at work on real, large-scale solutions that will move the U.S. toward a circular economy by promoting recycling and creating end-market demand for recycled plastic bags and films.

In Missouri, OneSTL is a great resource for learning about proper recycling — including plastic bag and film recycling. In fact, they recently launched a collaboration with Schnucks to improve the signage on plastic bag recycling bins in stores.

Recycling, when done properly, is a potent tool to help protect the environment. It can decrease the use of virgin materials, limit the amount of waste entering landfills, and promote circularity. 

To be clear, the industry agrees with Ms. Sanderson that plastic bags do not belong in the environment or in most curbside or single-stream recycling programs, as they are not compatible with the equipment used to sort other recyclables such as bottles and cans. However, calling plastic bags “fundamentally not recyclable” is a demonstrably false claim. 

Overall, as the pandemic forced us to adopt new traditions throughout the holiday season that will likely include more bags and packaging, we can still take steps to promote a more sustainable future by recycling what we can’t reuse. Just be sure to remember that plastic wraps and films must be recycled at the grocery store — the same place where we’ve been recycling plastic retail bags for decades.