With over a trillion plastic bags used annually around the world, recycling plastic bags is essential to waste reduction and the conservation of non-renewable natural resources.
Even as countries and cities across the globe take steps to reduce the use of plastic bags, it is safe to assume they are here to stay, necessitating a mindfulness of ecological sustainability. There is still a lot of effort needed, too; according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, only 7 percent of plastic bags were recycled in 2007.
Importance of Recycling Plastic Bags
Plastic bags are one of the most widespread forms of litter. In fact, the not-for-profit Center for Marine Conservation identifies them as one of the top types of trash collected during coastline cleanups. They are discarded in parks and on highways, get caught in trees, clog gutters and sewers, and even pose threats to ocean life that mistake them for food. But the most significant problem with discarded plastic bags-and the reason they are so prevalent as litter-is that they are not biodegradable.
Instead of biodegrading, plastic bags undergo a process known as photodegradation. Photodegradation involves the chemical breakdown of a substance into smaller pieces due to the absorption of sunlight. Plastic bags decompose for at least hundreds of years, eventually contaminating our soil and water.
Although 500 years is a widely cited estimate, scientists do not know exactly how long plastic bags take to decompose. They have only been around for about half a century, so there is no empirical evidence to provide a concrete timeline. Scientists estimate decomposition rates with respirometry tests. These tests involve placing waste into an environment designed to stimulate decomposition and using carbon dioxide emissions to determine a breakdown rate. Since microbes do not eat the polyethylene from which plastic bags are made, there are no carbon dioxide emissions to measure. The only certainty is that the process of photodegradation for plastic bags takes a very long time.
The polyethylene used in the production of plastic bags comes from petroleum, a non-renewable resource. Therefore, in addition to reducing unsightly, potentially damaging litter and solid waste in landfills, recycling plastic bags saves 11 barrels of oil per ton of bags recycled, according to the EPA. Besides new bags, recycled plastic bags also go toward making composite lumber and pellets or resin for the production of other plastic goods. In this way, recycling plastic bags contributes to conservation of energy and materials in other industries, as well.
Paper Versus Plastic Bags
There are a few compelling reasons why plastic bags may be a more eco-friendly option than paper bags.
The EPA points out that production of plastic bags requires 40 percent less energy than the production of paper bags, and that paper bag manufacturing creates 70 percent more air pollution and 50 percent more water pollution. In addition, recycling plastic bags uses a staggering 91 percent less energy than recycling paper bags. Plastic bags are also the greener choice where solid waste is concerned; 1000 plastic bags equal 15 pounds of waste, while the same number of paper bags creates 140 pounds of waste.
Whether plastic or paper bags are more environmentally friendly is under debate. There really is no right answer, and fortunately, the spread of reusable bags has provided an alternative.
How To Contribute To Recycling Efforts
Most types of plastic bags can be recycled. This includes dry cleaner bags, food storage baggies, newspaper bags, much of the plastic packaging used for food and household items (such as bread sacks, cereal box liners, fresh produce bags, and wrap around cases of bottled beverages and packs of napkins, paper towels, and toilet paper), and packaging used for furniture and electronics.
Cling wraps, heavily painted plastic bags, certain pre-packaged food bags (especially frozen foods), and those treated with substantial adhesive material cannot be recycled. Plastic bags should be clean, dry, and empty when deposited for recycling.
Where to Recycle Your Plastic Bags
Many grocery stores serve as drop-off points for plastic bag recycling. For more information about whether a certain type of bag is able to be recycled, and to find a plastic bag recycling location near you, visit PlasticBagRecycling.org.