Most curbside bin programs collect rigid plastics (think water bottles, takeout containers). These plastics are sent to recycling facilities where they are cleaned, processed, and sorted by their type. Each category of plastic is then shredded and cleaned before being melted down and compressed into tiny pellets that can be reused to make new products.
The pellets generated via the recycling process aren’t used to create the same plastic item as its original form, notes Stephanie Hicks, materials sourcing manager at Trex, a decking company that uses recycled materials. Instead, they are purchased in bulk and turned into materials like car parts, furniture, or clothing.
Now, you might assume that thin plastic bags can be recycled using the same process. And who could blame you; recycling rules are confusing! A recent survey commissioned by recycling program Covantra revealed that most Americans are guilty of placing things that aren’t recyclable in the recycling bin (otherwise known as “wishcycling”). But unfortunately, throwing plastic bags in the bin with hard plastics puts a strain on recycling systems.
“Many people think that since other types of plastic (namely No. 1 and No. 2) are recycled through municipal programs, that means plastic bags are also accepted,” says Alex Payne, North American public relations manager at recycling company TerraCycle. “This is false and actually leads to the bags clogging the highly tuned recycling machinery, leading to losses in time, money, and the otherwise recyclable material that the plastic bags become intermingled with.”
The extra labor required to fix the machinery and the equipment downtime makes recycling programs less profitable over time.