Paper Or Plastic — Bags Recycle Differently

By  Stina Sieg
April 30, 2014

(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
You can recycle plastic bags, but they don't go in this pile of recyclables at the city's North Gateway Transfer station.
(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
Phoenix's recycling is baled into giant palets, then sold. If plastic bags get stuck in these bales, they devalue the contents.
(Photo courtesy of City of Phoenix)
If plastic bags go through the traditional recycling system, this is what happens. The machines get gummed up, until workers cut the bags out.
(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
So, where do you take plastic bags? To almost any grocery store, where they're collected and brought to spots like this, a compactor at Bashas' headquarters.
(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
Roberto Reyes has been working in recycling at Bashas' for decades. A bale of compressed plastic bags and plastic wrap is behind his head.

Plastic bags and plastic wrap is everywhere. The EPA estimates that Americans use nearly 4 billion every year. The vast majority of those go into landfills and will never decompose in your lifetime.

It turns out that the bags are recyclable – but in their own, unique way.

On a typical day at the North Gateway Transfer Station near Anthem, a bulldozer pushes recyclables around a cavernous room called the tipping floor. This is where your newspapers, plastic bottles and soda cans go. But not your plastic bags.

As city employee Terry Gellenbeck put it, this all comes down to “semantics.”

“Yes, they are recyclable,” he said, “but we don’t take them in our blue barrel program.”

Gellenbeck, who is used to giving tours around the place, is a solid waste analyst but calls himself “the recycling guy.” He said plastic bags gum up the machines here. From behind glass, he pointed to giant rollers, sorting through paper, mostly.

“And then if you watch, as the paper disappears for a second — it’s hard to, because there’s so much paper — you’ll see, wrapped around all those conveyors that are in there? Plastic bags," he said. "And they have to stop, turn it off, take a giant knife and cut it out. That down time is unproductive time. That costs money.”

That price is about $200,000 a year, he explained. And it’s probably more than twice that when you factor in the plastic bags that accidentally make it through the system. Those contaminate the paper recycling and lower its value. So, what are you supposed to do with that inevitable stash of plastic bags on top of the fridge or under the sink? The answer is actually really simple. Take them back to your grocery store. Most participate in a program called Bag Central Station.

Eventually, those bags end up somewhere like the compactor at Bashas’ headquarters in Chandler. It’s where the plastic sacks are squished into bales, 1,100 pounds each. If you tour the spot, you can see it for yourself.

It’s not like “you’re just turning them in, and you don’t know where they go,” said Kristy Jozwiak, a spokeswoman for the company.

As the air from bags popped in to compactor next to her, she explained how these bales are sold to companies that specialize in making plastic lumber. They then are reincarnated as “decking, playground equipment,” she said. “There’s just a lot of fascinating things these plastic bags turn into.”

She said that has been part of plastic bag drives at local schools and other public-information campaigns.

“Customers can change their behavior and recycle those plastic bags, if they know about the process, and if we make it very easy,” she said.

But do people really know about the process? I didn’t. I decided to stop by a Bashas’ in Tempe. I asked a few shoppers if they knew how to recycle plastic bags.

“I do not,” said one man, pushing a cart filled with plastic bags. “I reuse them as much as possible. That’s my form of recycling.”

“Bring them to the store?” asked a woman.

“I usually do it, actually, at Fry’s,” replied another lady.

Then, there was Ellen Smith, who was happy to go in depth about her habits. She said used to live in California, where bag recycling is the norm. There, she got used to it.

“But it does take a consciousness and an awareness of, ‘OK, Gather up the bags, OK, remember to take them out of the car, walk into the store, go to the receptacle, pop it in there,'” she said. “But it’s just another habit. It’s another discipline in life.”

It’s a discipline not practiced by most people. The EPA estimates that less than 5 percent the country’s 100 billion plastic bags are recycled every year.

See all the stories in the Rubbish Series.