It’s getting harder to recycle plastic bags. A growing number of waste management districts in California have stopped accepting them as recyclables. The district serving the Monterey region is one of the latest to do so.
After a hauler collects what’s inside your blue recycling bin, all your used paper, glass and plastic products end up at the Materials Recovery Facility. Called MRF for short, the facility is the newest and noisiest one at the Monterey Regional Waste Management District.
The MRF is made up of a web of cobalt blue conveyor belts. The equipment does most of the sorting, but the process also involves people.
“We have roughly 25 to 30 people working on our sort lines at any given moment,” MRWMD Director of Operations Tim Brownell says.
The employees help pull off stuff that can’t be recycled. That now includes plastic film, like dry cleaner bags, saran wrap and plastic grocery bags. The district stopped trying to recycle those this month.
The material has always been problematic. It’s so thin and lightweight it gets caught in the conveyor belts. Plus, it usually comes in dirty, so it can’t be sold to end market recycling companies that give items a second life.
“When that material is contaminated in any way, shape or form, it makes it so that end markets can't recycle it. And that's the biggest problem that we're seeing with plastic bags,” says Brownell.
Up until now, the district accepted plastic bags anyway, because China would buy mixed plastic recyclables. All the way across the Pacific Ocean, someone was sorting through those to find the materials they wanted. But China stopped accepting many plastic recyclables this year.
“We've relied on exporting that material for the most part with the hope and the prayer that it's being recycled somewhere else. Really, we have to take that responsibility here domestically,” Brownell says.
For now, the plastic film has nowhere to go but the landfill. There, a compactor pushes piles of waste, each filled with dozens of plastic bags, toward the top of the trash mountain. Brownell says the plastic will take hundreds of years to break down.
“We're seeing more and more plastics generated, kind of everyday, coming through the waste stream. Many of us say that we have a plastics crisis,” Brownell says.
“It’s convenient to use these lightweight materials. But there's just so much more than we can really process,” Heather Jones says.
Jones works for the California Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery or CalRecycle. As she puts it, plastic bags and other plastic film is not really recyclable anymore.
“If there’s no end market for them, then, you know, what does it mean when we say they're recyclable? Just because the material can technically be recycled, that doesn't mean that we have, you know, the capacity to do that,” says Jones.
To explain that to consumers, the Monterey Regional Waste Management District will launch an educational campaign called “What Goes Where.”
Public Education and Outreach Specialist Angela Goebel says a website and app will help people recycle properly. But she says recycling isn’t always the answer. She points to the three Rs of waste management, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”
“The Rs are in the order of the most impact they make and reducing your consumption is the number one thing you can do to help the environment. So consider your habits and your consumption. Do you really need this item?” says Goebel.
There’s still one way you can recycle clean plastic bags. You can bring them back to the store where you got them. By law, large retail and grocery stores are required to have collection bins.
For a list of what you can still put in your curbside recycling bin, click here.