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Plastic Film Recycling

Plastic Film Recycling

Plastic Everywhere

Consumers use plastic in some form every day—from soda bottles to laundry pods, single-serve brew cups to bread wrappers and ties, car fobs to sunglasses, plastic is everywhere. It is also found in our garbage. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that in 2012, plastics made up 32 million tons—or almost 13 percent—of the municipal waste stream. The amount of plastics that actually end up getting recycled varies by type, but overall, only 9 percent of all plastic get recycled. The most popular type of plastic in the world is polyethylene, and one of its most common forms is a thin film that is used to make many shrink wraps, various forms of packaging, and the ubiquitous plastic bag.

 

Lasting Consequences

Plastic bags were first introduced into supermarkets in 1977 as an alternative to paper sacks. By 1996, nearly four out of five grocery bags were plastic, and today Americans use more than 100 billion plastic bags every year. Although we use them for only an average of 12 minutes, they have a life-span of hundreds of years in landfills.

 

These bags and other plastic films do not decompose like organic waste; instead, they photodegrade. This means that sunlight breaks them apart into smaller and smaller pieces over time. As they degrade into increasingly smaller bits just a few millimeters wide, a substance known as microplastics, they often end up in soil and waterways—where they remain for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

 

Plastic bags often make their way into the oceans when they get washed into waterways and storm drains. In the water, they can be mistaken for food by animals such as dolphins and sea turtles, sometimes with deadly effects. The smaller bits of plastic are also problematic: Research has shown that creatures from small invertebrates to large predatory fish ingest microplastics regularly, and scientists are just starting to understand the health effects this has on the marine life that swallow them.

 

Not-So-Simple Recycling

Many plastic films are recyclable. For example, most bags for dry cleaning, newspapers, produce, and shopping can be recycled, as can cereal box liners, product wraps, and zip-close storage bags. However, plastic bags and other plastic films usually should not be placed in recycling bins for general collection, as they can jam equipment at recycling facilities, taking time and money to repair. Some facilities estimate that plastic bags jam machinery six to eight times per day, affecting processing efficiency, labor costs, and safety. Currently, very few facilities are able to sort this kind of plastic with the same machinery used to sort your general collection of typical household recyclables.

 

Instead, plastic bags should be recycled through designated drop-off locations, from where the plastic films are picked up and taken to a specialty facility that has machinery that can process them correctly. Many major grocery stores and retailers take plastic bags for recycling (the bins can usually be found near the front of the store). Keep in mind that some plastic films are not accepted, including:

  • Cellophane
  • Degradable/compostable bags
  • Prewashed salad mix bags
  • Frozen food bags

 

Plastics that are recycled can be used to make various products, such as composite lumber and new plastic bags. This reduces the need to mine for new materials to create these products.

 

Reduce Your Use

While recycling is an important step to diminishing the environmental impact of plastic film, reducing your use is also crucial. The easiest way to use less plastic film is to opt for reusable bags whenever possible. Keep a few in the back of the car or in your bag so they’re always handy while you’re shopping. In the grocery store, also look for fresh produce that does not come prepackaged to limit the amount of plastic you’re using. When you must use plastic bags, find ways to reuse them—as garbage bags, doggie waste bags, packing filler, or laundry bags while traveling.

 

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