Here’s What Happens To Plastic Bags In The Recycling Bin

Here’s the life cycle of recyclables:

After the materials have served us well – plastic bottles, cardboard, paper – hopefully it ends up in a recycling bin to be reprocessed, to reduce landfill usage, to preserve Mother Nature, to reduce our carbon footprint. You know, all the right stuff. Thank you for that.

The recyclables are then collected and brought to a processing center, such as Recycle Ann Arbor’s recovery yard off Jackson Rd, where the materials are sorted and then bailed together according to kind. There are manufacturers who then purchase these products to reprocess rather than raw product.

Recycling is a profit center for local governments. The Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority (WWRA) processes materials from the townships of Dexter, Lyndon, Manchester, Lima, and the City of Chelsea. Last year’s revenues were in the ballpark of $1.5 million while expenses were $980,000.

Recycling isn’t just good for our environment. It subsidizes the regional tax base.

As good as this sounds, there is one issue with recycling that is as costly as it is frustrating.

Not all plastic is created equal.

Plastic bags cannot be recycled with plastic bottles.

The problem is straightforward enough. Plastic bags, usually containing recyclables, are tossed into the recycling dumpsters/bins. The plastic bags then wrap around the gears of the sorting machines. The machines have to be shut down.

“Workers have to climb into the machinery and cut the bags out with a razor blade,” explains  Jason Maciejewski, Board Chairperson for WWRA. “It’s dangerous for the workers.”

It doesn’t seem like such a small, insignificant thing as a plastic shopping bag or garbage bag could possibly cause much trouble, but that’s the problem. Folks may simply not realize how the activities of individuals across a population can accumulate.

Plastic bags have been an ongoing frustration at the drop-off center at Dexter Township Hall. Township Supervisor Harley Rider posted this plea just last night on the Dexter Open Forum Facebook page:

“Please, NO MORE PLASTIC BAGS in the Township recycle bins – any type for any reason!! It costs WWRA tens of thousands of dollars each year to have workers crawl into the machinery to cut out the plastic bags that stop the line.”

Enough people are tossing plastic bags into the recyclables that it costs the WWRA $219,000 annually in labor, broken equipment, increased waste, and reduced commodity sales, not to mention delays in processing full dumpsters at drop-off stations.

So, no more plastic bags in the recycling bins. Some of us already know. Some of us are learning. Spread the word.

Thank you for that.

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