None of these bags are recyclable.
When I was watching Morgan Spurlock’s documentary on the United States of Trash, the thing that most impacted me was this image.
Plastic grocery bags are made out of high density polyethylene (HDPE) and according to a 2009 EPA study, the rate of recycling this type of plastic is 6.1% (page 53), however, some believe even this very low number is inflated.
Bags must be clean and dry in order to be recycled and for a number of reasons, plastic bags cannot be recycled curbside and must be brought to your local grocery store’s bag collection container. For those of you who are local, you can return shopping bags (and any similar bag such as bread bags, produce bags, etc.) to Wegmans and they do recycle them in a facility in Houston.
HDPE does not biodegrade because microorganisms do not recognize it as food and therefore will not consume it. Instead, HDPE breaks down in sunlight via a process called photodegradation creating small particles that are believed to end up in the food chain. Many people are especially concerned about these particles and their impact on the ocean, specifically in the Pacific garbage patch. This is pretty heavily debated, usually by people with a conflict of interest, but I think we can safely assume that consuming less is better for the environment.
Confession: I have been a pretty thoughtless consumer of HDPE and I’m feeling convicted about that. When I started this personal challenge, I was interested to know if changing my habits would really be a painful experience for me, or if it would just be an easy switch that had a positive environmental impact without much personal cost.
The first thing we did was make a concerted effort to switch to reusable shopping bags. Wegmans sells really nice ones for a dollar or two. I’ve never used these, but my friend Beata recommended Envirosax.
Produce bags are also made out of HDPE, so we switched to these bags for produce (they’re huge, lightweight and stay clean unlike some mesh ones I tried out previously):
Those were both easy switches and we actually prefer the reusable bags.
Some states and municipalities have gone so far as to ban grocery bags entirely, which has had the unintended consequence of increasing garbage can liner sales in some studies. Garbage can liners are made of the same material.
We didn’t want to be in that boat, so we also attempted to remove garbage bags from our lives. I wondered if we redoubled our composting and recycling efforts, what kind of garbage we would end up with. It turns out that it was very dry and almost exclusively packaging we don’t have any easy way to recycle such as styrofoam, bubble lined mailers, tortilla chip bags and other packaging (I have my homework cut out for me!).
I’ve been cloth diapering for about two years, and in the process discovered the Planetwise reusable diaper pail liner. They are so waterproof that you can fill one with water and carry it around with you. I air dry them so they last longer and so far haven’t had to replace a single one after using them daily after 2 years of cloth diapering. So this was our system:
1. Compost all organic materials except for meat and cheese (click here for the simplest way to compost in the history of the universe).
2. Line our garbage and recycling cans with a reusable diaper pail liner.
3. Have a small garbage can under the sink with a plastic liner for meat and cheese products. We fill and empty this once a week or so and I’ve put meat and cheese composting on my list of things to figure out a system for – apparently it can be done.
Those are all plastic bags I need to recycle.
We are currently on week 3 and I’m absolutely shocked by how easy the transition was. I had no idea it would be such a minor change. We dump the garbage directly into our outside toter. In fact, we could probably get away with not using a liner at all, but I’m more likely to do a load of laundry than rinse out a trashcan if it happened to get dirty.
One thing that didn’t occur to me until later was that it’s also cost effective. Currently garbage bags are about 17 cents a piece. If you empty your garbage every other day, a reusable Liner will pay for itself in about 6 months. I’m excited to never buy garbage bags again.
As for the rest of our garbage cans, many have turned into recycling bins or dry garbage cans and they haven’t needed liners at all. For the two bathrooms I’ll be purchasing reusable trash bags.
Next on my agenda is figuring out how to compost meat and cheese (I will probably not become a vegan over this…), how to reduce our use of plastic packaging and how to completely replace ziploc bags.