Aside from reuse, what viable solutions for plastic bag waste are there? You—and most consumers—might be surprised to learn there are a couple other options, as TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky enlightens us.
It is estimated that U.S. residents use more than 102 billion plastic bags annually, and recycle only 0.6% of them. Most municipal curbside recycling programs do not accept plastic bags of any type, and high separation and processing costs often limit their profitability in the recycled commodity market.
Aside from reuse, what viable solutions for plastic bag waste are there?
For most consumers, the answer is often as simple as a trip to the supermarket. Some states today mandate that supermarkets, grocers and retail locations offer in-store “take back” programs for plastic bags, and must provide onsite collection boxes for customers. States that have officially enacted “Plastic Bag State Legislation” include California, Delaware, District of Columbia, Maine, New York, North Carolina and Rhode Island. New Jersey is in the process of formally requiring retail recycling programs.
Plastic bags collected at supermarkets and retail locations are already highly separated, making collection and processing far simpler. As long as they are clean, dry and comprised of plastic #2 or #4, other plastic films and bags can often be accepted as well, including bread and produce bags, newspaper bags, dry cleaning bags, and Glad clear sandwich and gallon bags, which are typically made from low- or high-density polyethylene (LDPE or HDPE).
There are alternative recycling solutions available to consumers in states without plastic bag legislation. Through the free, consumer-facing Glad Food Storage Recycling Program with TerraCycle, food storage bags that would otherwise be linearly disposed of in landfill or an incinerator can instead be recycled. Additionally, Glad Press’n Seal wrap, plastic cling wraps, plastic food storage containers and plastic food storage lids of any brand (all of which are not typically recyclable at the municipal level) can also be recycled through the Glad Food Storage Recycling Program.
TerraCycle’s Zero Waste Boxes are another option for consumers and businesses where municipal recycling options and other initiatives are insufficient. Zero Waste Boxes allow supermarkets and retail locations to help manage their plastic bag and film waste on both the consumer-facing and internal sides of operation. Whether they are in a municipality that mandates retail “takes backs” or not, businesses can supplement their recycling efforts and show employees and consumers their commitment to sustainability.
State-mandated sustainability initiatives are step in the right direction for top-down changes in our current recycling infrastructure, but their effectiveness is contingent upon visibility and educated consumers. Many individuals may not be aware of their ability to recycle common items like plastic bags; in this case, any LDPE or HDPE plastics can be recycled in state-mandated retail “take back” programs. Consumer-facing recycling options for plastic bags are available, and empowering consumers by making these solutions more visible is essential as we continue to shift towards a more sustainable retail environment.
Author Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle, has won more than 50 awards for entrepreneurship, writes blogs for Treehugger and The New York Times, published a book called "Make Garbage Great" in July 2015 and is the star of the television show "Human Resources" on Pivot TV, now in its third season.