Monday April 29, 2013 | 08:36 AM
Posted by Harold Johnson

Plastic shopping bags are making news these days. People are tired of seeing this:

So of course the bag industry is ramping up its “recycling” campaign as an answer.

But last week the Bangor Daily News reported a sobering reality: Maine’s largest recycling company, ecoMaine, grosses barely $4-5 per TON for recycled plastic bags. That’s when they’re lucky enough to find a buyer.

That’s not an economically real market, despite bag makers’ constant refrains. It’s a smokescreen.

In fact, there’s little market for any #3, #4, #5, #6, or #7 plastics. ecoMaine’s website has great public information including monthly sales totals. Here is their latest (PDF file):

Since July they’ve averaged $8.78 per ton for all #3 - #7 plastics. That doesn’t count the costs of payroll, electricity, maintenance, etc. Only #1 bottles and #2 bottles/jugs have real value. All those yogurt containers, SOLO cups, toy packages, shampoo bottles -- nearly worthless, despite the rhetoric and despite your effort in cleaning and binning them. Worse, often the only buyers are developing nations with lax laws, little oversight, and growing environmental nightmares of their own.

We’re told we’re doing something amazing by “keeping all of that plastic out of the waste stream.” Yet really, often we’re just passing the junk-buck.

Out of sight, out of mind. “Away.”

Back to the plastic bags. Bag makers will tell you they recycle tons annually. But dig for the details; you come up empty. That’s because shopping bags are lumped into a catch-all recycling category: “Polyethylene Film.” What else is polyethylene film? Bubble wrap, paper-product packaging, and most importantly, industrial pallet wrap.

Because of this lumping, I can find no solid data showing exactly how many shopping bags are returned, how many are actually being reused, and what they’re being turned into.

The bag makers may well not want us to know. Shopping bags are dirty. They’re often in contact with liquids & food residue & grime. All of which lower or ruin their value. But the other categories of film are typically kept dry & clean, used briefly (often excessively), and then funneled through industrial channels back to recyclers.

Recyclers use a small portion of the cleanest of this mixed film to put back into shopping bags.* The rest -- if it even stays in the US -- is only fit for dirty uses like plastic mulch for factory farms, or plastic lumber for the building industry. From there, it's generally a one-way road to the landfill.

A decade ago, nobody had heard of plastic mulch or plastic lumber. They only became viable when plastic became ultra-cheap. Plastic mulch & lumber became ultra-cheap because of recycling.

So here's my argument: Recycling our plastic bags hasn’t created less plastic in the world. It’s created more.

If anyone has evidence otherwise, I'd love to see it.

(Source: Photo linked from ‘Pick Up America’ -- look through their blog and see what these dedicated volunteers found on roadsides all across the nation last year.)

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* Those “recycled” shopping bags are at best ~35% recycled material, meaning that some 65% of each ‘eco’ bag is virgin material, added to the world’s plastic burden.

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About the Author

Visiting a Maine beach in March 2010, Harold Johnson was shocked by the ocean-borne debris left by recent storms. He grabbed a garbage bag and a camera, and hasn’t looked back.

Since then he has spent most of his free time studying marine pollution, coastal ecosystems, and the mysteries and science of ocean and shore.

Copyeditor and writer by trade, historian and archaeologist at heart, Johnson’s philosophy is simple: Dig below the surface, travel the currents, make the connections, learn. Then share what you learn. He lives in Saco with his wife and young daughter. Follow on Twitter @FlotsamDiaries.

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