If you can’t beat it, bag it.
At least that’s what two material recovery facilities (MRFs) in the Lone Star State are attempting to do to tackle enemy No. 1—ubiquitous single-use plastic bags which relentlessly contaminate the recycling stream and tangle around equipment.
In late 2014, the city of San Antonio and ReCommunity joined forces to pilot the “Bag Your Bags” program as a way to stop lightweight HDPE material from jamming recycling machines by asking residents to effectively create a plastic bag "ball" out of multiple bags.
“We ask residents to stuff plastic bags into another plastic bag until it gets to be a soccer ball size, tie it up and throw it into their single-stream recycling cart,” says Will Herzog, director of marketing for ReCommunity. “It makes it easier for us to sort those in the plant. So far we have had some successes with it, but it’s a new program so we are very early in the stage of being able to demonstrate how efficient it is. We still get a lot of loose plastic bags.”
Herzog says the program was developed when the city “expressly asked during the RFP process” for a solution geared to recycling plastic bags.
Texas Disposal Services (TDS) introduced a similar program in 2011, but only one of the nearly 100 communities and municipalities it services has taken them up on the offer. That’s Georgetown, Texas, a community north of Austin which added the program when it converted its curbside recycling collection to single-stream, says Ryan Hobbs, business development for TDS.
“We came up with the 'Bag-The-Bag' film plastic recycling program and we designed a special stuffer bag that are distributed to residential customers who can place them in their pantry or under a sink and over the course of time, they can stuff all varieties of film plastic inside,” such as bread bags, newspaper bags and the wrap around paper towels, he says.
The stuffer bag is bright yellow, so it’s easy to see and pick off conveyors. It also has strategic perforation to withstand the violent metering process without popping, says Adam Gregory, business development at TDS.
“We had several goals with the program," he says. "The issue isn’t really the recyclability of the bags. They are made out of HDPE which is a very recyclable material. The trouble is the economics of recovery and how difficult it is to pull out one bag at a time. So this is a joint strategy to prepackage the bags together so we can pick dozens or hundreds at a time instead of one at a time.”
This process also keeps the material clean and dry, an important prerequisite for end users who use the bags to create synthetic lumber, railroad ties and new plastic bags.
“When that material arrives at our facility, it’s been commingled with newspaper and aluminum cans, broken bottles, but it has been protected because it’s been contained in this stuffer bag,” Hobbs says.
Sandi Childs, director of film and flexible programs for the Association of Postconsumer Plastics Recyclers, says she hopes additional MRFs will do more to keep plastic bags out of landfills and put them into the hands of reclaimers.
“We have to recognize that currently in North America, the biggest supply of any recyclable comes out of the MRF,” Childs says. “By not being able to recycle bags and film at MRFs, we are not achieving the potential in terms of mining or harvesting this material from households. In five, 10, 15 years, we would love to see MRFs adapt and equipment manufacturers make the equipment that is needed or modify it so that film and bag plastics could become a part of the MRF's supply.”
In the meantime, APR has embarked on a partnership with the Wrap Recycling Action Program (WRAP) to expand and spread the word about the 18,000 retail drop-off centers nationwide where plastic film and bags are collected.
“We’re working to try to expand awareness of those centers and we want them to have as much as possible, consistent educational messages so people know what they can and can’t put in those grocery store or retail partner bins,” she says. For instance, the bags inside of cereal boxes are recyclable and acceptable at these centers along with dry cleaning film and other film plastics.
“We are trying to help the reclaimers—our members who are purchasing these bales from the retail collectors,” she says. “They’re the ones who have to deal with the contamination and yield loss. The more we can do to help them with consistent education, the better.”