Recycling Know No’s: The Bag of Bags

August 1, 2023

Submitted by Liz Antanavica, DPW Refuse & Recycling Administrator

The bag of plastic bags, under the sink or in a closet, is so ubiquitous it feels like a symbolic rite of passage into adulthood, second only to the box of cords in the basement that has no known purpose but feels too useful to throw away. In New England especially, one could likely walk into any household kitchen and ask for a “Market Basket bag” and in no time, a single-use plastic bag would appear. This is despite the nearly 160 local ordinances banning the distribution of free single-use plastic checkout bags, including Bedford’s. 

Plastic film, the industry term for all thin, flexible plastics, is so pervasive in our everyday lives that it would be near impossible to do without it. In my own personal “bag of bags” is the original Market Basket bag, a thicker “reusable” plastic checkout bag, English muffin bags, bags from snack cheese sticks, and case overwrap from Polar Seltzers plus several unmarked bags from deliveries (or really who knows where else!) Some marked specifically with a resin type, some more generally, and some not at all. There’s a LOT of film plastic to be encountered in everyday life. 

Before we go any further, I want to make a big disclaimer about resin type (or the recycling triangle): Resin type is not a good indicator of curbside recyclability, which is why for curbside blue bin plastics, acceptable items include rigid bottles, jars, jugs, and tubs – and absolutely NO plastic films. Resin type is important when we are talking about films, which must be recycled elsewhere. More on that in a moment. 

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A quick not-so-technical science lesson

Plastic film broadly falls into two categories – Ethylene-based films and “other” films. Plastic bags made with #2 (high-density polyethylene) or #4 (low-density polyethylene) resins are very similar chemically and therefore can be shredded and melted together to make new Ethylene-based products. Other resins, like #5 (polypropylene) and #7 (officially classified as “other”) are not chemically similar and do not mix well, like mixing oil and water. Ethylene-based plastics stretch when you pull them. A grocery checkout bag is ethylene-based as is case overwrap on water bottles and on toilet paper packages. Non-ethylene plastic films are more rigid and cannot be stretched. These types of bags include packaging for specialty grains, like Bob’s Red Mill, and consumer packaging for dried fruits and nuts. Do a little test yourself – take out your own bag of bags and see which kind of plastics you have. 

Plastic films destined for the trash pulled out of the sorting line at the Billerica single-stream MRF. Courtesy Image

Plastic films are highly recyclable – when they make it to the correct place. Most grocery retailers collect plastic films near the main entrance to the store in tall opaque containers. These collection bins are emptied into a baler at the back of the store and pressed into 100-lb blocks, which are then picked up by a plastic film recycler. Grocery outlets like Whole Foods, Market Basket, and Stop & Shop contract with the Trex Company to collect these materials to be used in composite lumber. Residents should return plastic bags (from any retailer) no matter if they are checkout bags or any of the hundreds of other types of ethylene-based plastic bags floating around in our daily lives. Learn more about plastic film and other hard-to-recycle plastic here

If you don’t have access to a plastic film drop off location, please put these items in the trash and not the curbside recycling. When films enter the single stream recycling facility, they wrap around the equipment, slowing or even stopping the lines and endangering staff who must cut these plastic films free from the sorting screens. At every single stream recycling facility I’ve visited, missorted plastic films are problematic.  

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