A Solution Not in the Bag

Why Recycling Cannot Solve the Plastic Bag Problem in Washington
Released by: Environment Washington

Plastic bags litter our roadways, lakes and creeks, contaminate Puget Sound, and harm Washington’s wildlife. Animals can ingest these bags, choke on them, or be exposed to toxic chemicals carried on the plastic.

Voluntary efforts, including recycling programs, have proved insufficient to prevent plastic pollution. In fact, plastic bags actually cause problems for Washington’s recycling industry. When plastic bags are part of mixed recyclables, they get caught in machinery, shutting down recycling operations. Responding to an Environment Washington Research & Policy Center survey, 70 percent of Washington recycling companies want plastic bags out of the waste stream.

There is a simple solution:  Cities in Washington, and the state as a whole, can ban single-use plastic bags.

Less than 5 percent of plastic bags are recycled.
•    Every year, Washingtonians use more than 2 billion plastic bags.
•    According to the EPA, only 4.3 percent of all plastic bags in the US were recycled in 2010, down almost 2 percent from the previous year.
•    Plastic production has outpaced recycling for the past 50 years.

Plastic bags interfere with the operation of Washington recycling facilities.
•    Curbside recycling in some of Washington’s cities allows the inclusion of plastic bags in mixed recyclables but this actually causes problems in the recycling facilities. 
•    Over half of Washington’s recycling facilities do not even accept plastic bags.  For those facilities, 83% reported that their recycling stream was contaminated with plastic bags and it was causing problems.
•    When plastic bags pollute mixed recyclables, they get tangled in recyclers’ machinery, causing plants to shut down.
•    Some recycling plants in Washington estimate spending 20 to 30 percent of their labor costs removing plastic bags from their machinery – on the order of $1,000 per day.
•    More than 70 percent of Washington recyclers want disposable plastic bags out of the waste system.

Voluntary recycling programs have proven insufficient to solve plastic bag pollution.
•    California attempted to reduce bag litter by requiring grocery companies to place recycling bins in front of their stores. However, the state has seen no noticeable change in litter or waste from plastic bags.
•    California’s program has only managed to increase plastic bag recycling by 2 percent in 3 years.
•    Voluntary approaches like this, are often supported by the plastic industry and tend to preempt local governments and prevent them from taking action to reduce litter and waste.

Plastic bags that do end up collected for recycling are mostly exported to China, where they cause environmental and health problems.
•    China accepts more than half of all reclaimed plastic bags for recycling, and that number is rising.
•    Plastic bag recycling plants in China expose workers to toxic fumes, create a haze that hangs over villages, and pollute groundwater sources.

Consumers bring their own bags in many parts of the world.  Washington can follow this example and ban bags.
•    Nothing we use for a few minutes should end up contaminating our oceans for hundreds of years.
•    Because recycling efforts have proven inadequate, Washington’s civic leaders should ban single-use plastic bags.