Palouse Area Environmental Update

By David Hall, Board Member of Palouse Prairie Foundation, Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition, and Palouse Water Conservation Network.

Much more plastic film than just grocery shopping bags can be recycled

At the Moscow and Pullman Safeway stores, much more than just their plastic grocery and produce bags can be recycled. Moscow and Pullman Walmarts accept only #2 HDPE and #4 LDPE (high- or low-density polyethylene) plastic bags for recycling, according to the Earth911 web site (earth911.com). Earth911 lists #2 and #4 plastic bags, #2 and #4 plastic film, and “plastic packing materials” for Safeway stores. The Moscow Recycling Center does not accept any plastic bags for drop-off; plastic bags but not packing materials may be included in their single-stream curbside containers (please corral them all in one bag).

 Grocery store plastic bags and produce bags, plastic film, and other plastic packaging material such as dry cleaning bags, bubble wrap, and the wrap from many products–including paper plates, napkins, bathroom tissue, diapers, and paper towels–can be recycled at our local Safeway stores. Generally, if the plastic packaging stretches when you pull it with your fingers, it’s okay to recycle it.

Ensure that your materials are clean and dry, without food residue. Remove receipts, labels, tape, adhesive strips, and other detritus.

You can recycle:

  • Retail plastic bags
  • Carryout bags
  • Produce bags
  • Newspaper & magazine bags
  • Bread bags
  • Dry cleaning bags
  • Zip-top food storage bags
  • Plastic shipping envelopes
  • Deflated bubble wrap and air pillows
  • Product wrap on
  • Cases of water and soda bottles
  • Paper towels
  • Napkins
  • Disposable cups
  • Bathroom tissue
  • Diapers
  • female sanitary products
  • Furniture and electronic wrap
  • Plastic cereal box liners (if it does not tear like paper)

Do not include:

  • “Degradable” or “compostable” packaging
  • Pre-washed salad mix bags
  • Frozen food bags
  • Candy bar wrappers
  • Chip bags
  • Six-pack rings
  • Thick, stiff plastic such as pet food bags or bedding bags (including anything with a zipper)
  • Plastic wrappers that crinkle loudly when crushed

What happens to my bags and wraps after they’re recycled?

The plastic bags and film dropped off at the Moscow Safeway go back to their distribution center in Spokane, according to former store manager and Moscow Mayor Bill Lambert.

One of the largest take-back programs in the country is Bag-2-Bag, which is run by Novolex, which also operates the world’s largest closed-loop plastic bag recycling plant (located in Indiana). So, it appears that at least some of the recycling of bags back into bags stays in the United States. And, as opposed to many other recyclable materials, there is not a glut of plastic bags; it is said that recyclers need more plastic bags back. “Getting retail bags back from recycling is highly competitive,” says Phil Rozenski, senior director of sustainability for Novolex.

Most bags and film are turned into composite lumber for making decks, benches, and playground sets, but they can be used to make a variety of products, such as new bags, pallets, containers, crates, and plumbing pipe.

Avoid, minimize, mitigate

Remember to bring to the store and use your re-usable shopping bags. Reduce the plastic you acquire by buying products in bulk and products with reduced packaging. Re-use the packaging you do bring home; bring your produce bags to the Farmers Market with you. As your final step, keep packaging out of the waste stream by recycling it.

There is an interesting partial answer to Andrew Hellman’s question, “It’s obvious that reusing plastic bags is a good idea, but it’s not obvious that recycling them is worthwhile… How much energy and raw materials are actually required to make plastic shopping bags, and much do we save by recycling them?” However, his article (see reference below) seems a bit dated (data from 2007), and it does not consider the costs associated with re-usable shopping bags. Reusable cotton bags require pesticides and “tons of water” to produce (Earth911).

Plastic bags carry the smallest ecological footprint to produce. But there is no way around the fact that plastic is derived from petroleum.

It takes three reuses of a paper bag to neutralize its environmental impact, relative to plastic. Manufacturing a paper bag requires about four times as much water as does a plastic bag. Additionally, fertilizers and other chemicals are used in tree farming and manufacturing.

Are reusable bags really better than plastic bags? An average cotton shopping bag would need to be reused 131 times to account for its higher impact on the production side. Non-woven polypropylene bags are less costly than cotton. These bags need to be reused only 11 times to break even with conventional plastic bags. The best option is to use a tote you already have (or buy one secondhand).

Information on what can be recycled at the Moscow Safeway store and the Moscow Recycling Center was confirmed in December, 2017.  I have not spoken to Walmart or Pullman Safeway representatives.

 Sources:

American Chemistry Council. https://www.plasticfilmrecycling.org – At their website one can enter a ZIP code to locate plastic bag recycling locations.

Hellman, Andrew. Undated. Stanford University. Plastic Bags: To Recycle or Not: Nitty-gritty. https://alumni.stanford.edu/getpage/magazine/article/?article_id=30164

Shapley, Haley. August 2016. Earth911. Yes, Plastic Bag Recycling is Possibly – What to Know.  https://Earth911.com/business-policy/plastic-bag-recycling –  At their website one can enter a ZIP code to locate recycling locations and what can be recycled (including plastic film and packaging materials).

Thompson, Claire. September 2017. Stanford University. ECO-TIPS: Paper, Plastic or Reusable? https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=95690

 David has been spending his time trying to keep the water in the Grande Ronde aquifer, the highway off Paradise Ridge, the Palouse Prairie in existence, and motor vehicles off the proposed Third Street bridge.