Up until 2005, the EPA listed recycling rates for plastic bags separate from other forms of polyethylene plastics (more about that in a minute). However, post 2005, the EPA began to lump the recycling rate of plastic bags into “Bags, sacks and wraps” – HDPE, LDPE and LLDPE plastics. This new way of calculating recycling rates made the tracking of recycing rates for plastic bags more difficult, but not impossible.
A quick tutorial on what all these initials mean: HDPE is High Density Polyethylene, which is used to make most of the single-use plastic grocery bags you see in your local grocery stores. LLDPE is Linear Low-Density Polyethylene – think about those glossy, shopping mall bags as an example of LLDPE plastic. Further, the stretch wrap that you see wrapped around shipping pallets and the wrap around your paper towel and toilet paper are examples of LDPE/LLDPE plastic. LDPE and LLDPE bags and wrap have a fairly well-established recycling infrastructure and if you drive behind your local shopping mall, you will probably see a container of that type of wrap, ready to be picked up for recycling. Retailers and wholesalers use tons of this “stretch wrap” as goods are shipped around the country. It is clean, plentiful, and can be recycled easily, making it a valuable commodity.
So what does the EPA have to say about recycling rates for last year (2010)?
1 – Bags, sacks and wraps: HDPE : 4.3% recovery rate; LDPE/LLDPE: 17.6%; Subtotal Bags, Sacks and wraps: 11.5%
What were the recycling rates for 2009, according to the EPA?
2 – Bags, sacks and wraps: HDPE: 6.1% recovery rate; LDPE/LLDPE: 13.4%. Subtotal Bags, Sacks and wraps: 9.4%
To put it in a nutshell: the recycling rate for plastic bags (HDPE) has gone down almost 2 percentage points, a 30% reduction from 2009. This is data that deeply conflicts with the information that the shrink wrap (LDPE/LLDPE) rates increased by 4%. It would indicate (to me, at least) that while the infrastructure and incentive for recycling shrink wrap is thriving, shoppers (you and me) have become even less vigilant about recycling their single-use disposable plastic bags than they were in 2009.
Opponents of bans on single-use plastic bags claim that given education and a proper place to dispose of their bags (i.e., the recycling box in front of some grocery stores), consumers will do the right thing. They claim their educational efforts are paying off and that more and more consumers are recycling their bags. This latest data seems to bely those claims.
1 http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/msw_2010_data_tables.pdf – P2 http://www.epa.gov/wastes/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/msw2009rpt.pdf – P5353