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Reducing, reusing and recycling plastic bags and wrap
Plastic film, which includes many types of bags and wrap, is everywhere in our lives. In part because of their convenience and abundance, though, these valuable resources are often used in excess, wasted, buried in landfills or littered in our streets.
There are easy and cost effective ways to reduce waste and recapture the benefits of plastic bags and wrap after their initial use. Individuals and businesses can reduce excessive use of bags and wrap, reuse them or recycle them. Industrial shrink wrap used in packaging can be recycled and is in high demand by manufacturers as a raw material. Individuals, schools, non-profits, workplaces and communities can collect plastic bags and wrap for recycling or promote local recycling programs. One opportunity for involvement is through Wisconsin WRAP, the Wrap Recycling Action Project.
Reduce the number of bags you use and reuse plastic bags
Look for this poster at a Wisconsin collection site near you.
Poster courtesy of plasticfilmrecycling.org.
The first and best option for reducing plastic waste is to minimize single-use plastics in your daily life. Actions you can take include:
- Reduce your use of disposable shopping bags by using a reusable bag or container when shopping.
- Reuse old plastic bags for multiple shopping trips.
- Re-purpose plastic bags as trash liners or pet waste bags.
- Refuse a bag for easy-to-carry purchases.
- Buy products in bulk.
Many grocery stores offer durable, washable bags to customers at an affordable price. Using these bags on a regular basis can create less waste than paper or plastic, and washing them regularly helps prevent the spread of dirt and germs.
What can be recycled: more than shopping bags
If you have plastic bags and wrap you can't reuse, you can often recycle them at stores or other drop-off sites if they are clean and dry.
Many people know that shopping bags can be recycled. Far fewer are aware that other household plastic wrap can be recycled, including:
- plastic newspaper bags;
- produce bags;
- stretch film around furniture or electronics;
- plastic packaging on paper products; and
- dry cleaning bags.
Plasticfilmrecycling.org has more information on which types of plastic bags and wrap can be recycled and which cannot. Non-recyclable plastic wraps include any wrap or bag that contained frozen food, pre-washed salad mix bags and bags labeled as degradable. Any plastic wrap, bag or film that is dirty or wet should also not be recycled.
When in doubt, don't recycle items you are unsure about. Bags and wrap with food particles or excess moisture —or that are labeled compostable or biodegradable—can hinder the recycling process and prevent the reuse of entire loads of recovered bags and wrap.
Take your plastic wrap and bags to drop-off locations
You can recycle most clean and dry plastic wrap and bags at participating store drop-off locations.
If you know of stores that are collecting plastic film and bags but are not listed in the directory, suggest a drop-off location.
Although some community recycling programs will accept plastic bags and wrap in curbside collection, the industry strongly encourages recyclers to use retail drop-off locations instead. Plastic wrap, bags and film clog curbside recycling machinery and are difficult to separate from other materials. For now, the best option is to take clean, empty bags and wrap to a retailer that offers a recycling bin to its customers.
Do more: set up or encourage collection programs
A stack of plastic film and bags collected for recycling at a drop-off location.
Whether you are a business that generates a lot of plastic film and bags or a consumer, there is a role for you. Learn how to do your part to build the economy, keep recyclable plastic film and bags out of Wisconsin landfills and put them back into productive use.
- Set up a collection program at your local school or your workplace, including work operation spaces such as a distribution center.
- Learn how your business, retail or grocery store, or distribution center can support plastic film recycling and get involved.
- Coordinate local outreach and education.
- Become a WRAP Community Champion.
Wisconsin WRAP (Wrap Recycling Action Project)
Wisconsin is part of the national WRAP initiative.
Logo courtesy of plasticfilmrecycling.org.
The DNR has partnered with the American Chemistry Council's Flexible Film Recycling Group and GreenBlue's Sustainable Packaging Coalition on a plastic film recycling initiative called Wisconsin WRAP: Recycling Plastic Film Beyond Bags.
This innovative public/private partnership is focusing on increasing recycling of plastic film found in nearly every business and household to significantly increase the recycling rate. A 2012 DNR plastics recycling study concluded that Wisconsin could realize substantial economic benefits by recycling more of the valuable plastic film that currently ends up in landfills.
After assessing the existing infrastructure and state of recycling, the partners developed plans to address key barriers: access to recycling for businesses and lack of consumer information. In addition to a consumer education campaign launched in October 2013 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin WRAP is also implementing commercial demonstration projects and going statewide with consumer bag and wrap recycling awareness campaigns in various regions of the state.
Local government recycling programs, businesses and civic groups can become a WRAP Community Champion.
Presentations from Wisconsin WRAP webinar
Below are PDFs of the presentations from the May 20, 2014, Wisconsin WRAP webinar.
- Wisconsin WRAP webinar intro
- Wisconsin WRAP Overview: Flexible Film Recycling Group
- Wisconsin WRAP: Outagamie County
- Wisconsin WRAP: Eau Claire County
- Wisconsin WRAP: Dunn County
These materials are free to any community, business or civic group. To order print copies (when available), use the Recycling & Waste Reduction Publications Order Form.
- Plastic film recycling for materials recovery facilities and landfills (WA-1739)
- Plastic film recycling for responsible units (WA-1748)
- Plastic film recycling for businesses and retailers with existing collection programs (WA-1786)
- Plastic film recycling tips for businesses and retailers starting a collection program (WA-1703)
- Plastic film recycling outreach tip sheet (WA-1704)
- Plastic bag and film recycling poster (WA-1694)
- Plastic bag and film recycling 1/3-page flier (WA-1695)
Benefits of plastic film recycling
Recycling clean, dried plastic shopping bags, newspaper bags, wrap packaging and other plastic bags and wrap ensures that we continue to make full use of materials while conserving energy and keeping bags and wrap out of our landfills, streets and natural environment.
Environmental impacts of plastic bag use and disposal
Plastic trash in a tree.
Photo by Vincent Cobb, courtesy of reusablebags.com
Their light weight and ease of use mean plastic bags and wrap require less energy for production and transportation than some other packaging materials.
At the same time, plastic bags and wrap have a number of environmental impacts throughout their life cycle. These include greenhouse gas emissions and pollution from the process of extracting and refining petroleum or natural gas, the original feedstock for making new plastic. They also include impacts from improper disposal, as bags and wrap can clog gutters and sewer grates, endanger animals that mistake the plastics for food, and accumulate in trees, fences and other places where they become an eyesore. Plastics can take hundreds of years to degrade and can also interfere with proper moisture distribution and drainage in landfills.
Reducing, reusing and recycling plastic bags, film and wrap helps to lessen these negative environmental impacts while promoting continued use of the plastics we have already produced in ways that benefit the community and spur economic activity. While some cities have imposed bans or taxes on bags, reusing and recycling bags and wrap recovers these resources and contributes to a supply of plastic wrap for use by industry.
Recycled plastic bags and wrap become new products
While only about 12 percent of plastic bags and other film are currently recycled in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the demand for clean scrap film is quickly growing. Plastics are long-lived and, even after initial use, can serve as feedstock in a swiftly expanding manufacturing industry.
Products made from recycled grocery bags and other plastic films include new bags, composite lumber and playground equipment. Recycling plastic bags and wrap prevents the waste of resources, reduces the amount of material being buried in landfills, helps prevent litter and contributes to new jobs in Wisconsin.
Recycling plastic film creates jobs and reduces disposal costs
Bales of plastic bags and film ready for shipment to a manufacturer.
Businesses across Wisconsin can also reduce, reuse and recycle plastic bags and wrap while taking the opportunity to build profits and create jobs. A 2012 report prepared for the DNR concluded that the plastic waste of Wisconsin businesses and workplaces, if recycled, could be worth more than $41 million. Industrial film packaging alone was valued at more than $6 million.
Grocery stores, retailers and distribution centers generate the cleanest stream of plastic film and could benefit greatly by recycling this material instead of sending it to the landfill, potentially reducing disposal costs.
By recycling bags and wrap and spreading the word, businesses can lead the way for their communities.
Compostable plastic benefits and limitations
A growing number of plastic products claim to be compostable or biodegradable, including trash bags and pet-waste bags. These products should not be placed in recycling containers for plastic bags because they will interfere with the recycling process.
In some cases, compostable plastics may be a preferred environmental alternative but the case is complex. These products are only compostable in industrial facilities equipped to handle them. They will not degrade completely in a landfill or backyard or typical municipal compost facility. In fact, because composting is an aerobic process and requires oxygen, nothing "composts" in a landfill. Instead, in the landfill, such waste breaks down to generate methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Check with your local government if you have questions about using compostable bags for their yard or food waste collections.