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The fate of recycled bags remains uncertain

I make a point to return single-use plastic bags to the grocery stores where I get them (Fred Meyer, Target and Albertsons), as they have bins out for their return. Are the three stores able to recycle them, as they say on the collection container, or are the bags just going back into the general garbage and I am wasting my time?

— Kathy M.

Your question demonstrates a more nuanced understanding of recycling than most have, Kathy. You’ve clearly been paying attention to the recycling news cycle in the past few years to know that putting the bags in the bin doesn’t necessarily mean they’re being turned into a new product.

That truth is something many of us woke up to only after a crunch on the global recycling market forced a bottleneck that sparked a big cutback in what our local waste management companies accept in our recycling bins.

And, yes, as you are worried about now with your film plastics, there was a time when those materials we thought were being recycled were going straight into the local landfill.

We reached out to Kroger and Target to ask what happens to the film plastics that people drop off. We didn’t receive a response, but a case study published by the Association of Plastic Recyclers showed that Target’s collected plastics are transported to Washington, D.C. They are baled together and reused.

A 2019 Kroger memo on the company’s sustainability efforts said the company recycled more than 52 million pounds of plastic in 2018. Target reported about 16.8 million pounds of film plastic recycled in 2017, according to the Association of Plastic Recyclers.

Plastic film recycling programs at stores are usually managed separately from the recycling programs run by municipal waste management companies. Denise Barnes, recycling manager with Rogue Disposal, told us last year that the company doesn’t touch film plastics, adding that those plastics wreak havoc during sorting by gumming up the machines.

Film plastic sorted by itself, however, can be recycled into useful new products. For example, when combined with wood and organic scraps such as sawdust, the bags are often repurposed into durable decking material. Sometimes that material is used to make benches or playgrounds.

Sometimes, they just become other bags. An article published by Target’s corporate office said that all plastic bags are made of 40% recycled content.

Kroger has made a commitment to phase out all single-use plastic bags by 2025.

To find stores near you that run film plastic collections, use plasticfilmrecycling.org. As with all other recyclables, the bags need to be clean and dry to be able to be recycled.

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