Garbage Goat

“Hi! I’m GG the Garbage Goat, and I like to talk about trash. On my blog you’ll find interesting bits of information regarding how Spokane County handles its solid waste, how our recycling is handled, and other interesting things about waste. If you have questions about recycling or solid waste, you can contact the Spokane County Regional Recycling Information Line at 509-477-6800, or contact us online.”

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Mar 07

Why can’t I recycle plastic bags?

Posted on March 7, 2019 at 3:13 PM by Austin Stewart

GG Plastic Bags_Scaled

As we’ve discussed before, recycling plastic is not a straightforward process. There are many variables that make recycling plastic challenging, such as different types of plastic, the way we sort our plastic, and the available markets for our recycled plastic. A common item that is not accepted in Spokane County’s curbside recycling bins is plastic bags. We use these bags almost every day, they’re recyclable, but in Spokane County they’re considered a contaminant in our commingled, or single stream recycling bins. If a material is so prevalent and made of a recyclable material, then why can’t it be put in your recycle bin?

The problem with plastic bags is similar to the lid situation—they are difficult to sort. Just like lids, thin plastic bags are hard for machines to differentiate from other flat items like paper and cardboard, and they become contaminants for those commodities. Bags can also become tangled in the machinery that sort recycling materials, wrapping themselves around moving parts and tying up equipment. At Waste Management’s SMaRT center in Spokane, machines have to be shut down about every two hours simply to remove tangled plastic bags that are causing clogs. This wasted time limits productivity and increases maintenance costs, which ultimately shows up on the bills that residents pay.

Plastic bags are made from a lower quality plastic than items like sturdy plastic water bottles, laundry detergent bottles, and other hard plastic containers. Lower quality items are harder for recyclers to make a profit from, and so there is less incentive for a recycler to find a way to sort the bags from other plastic materials. Recycled plastic bags are often made into things like synthetic lumber, plastic furniture, insulation, and plastic fibers like polyester for textiles, but they are rarely turned into the same quality of plastic again because they are difficult to process without losing material quality. 

The problems caused by plastic bags do not make them unrecyclable, but require us to keep them separate from our other recyclable materials. Many local retail outlets like grocery and hardware stores have bins specifically meant to handle plastic films and bags. These single-category recycling bins make it easier for recyclers to have a pure source of the material, and eliminate concern about contamination. If you have plastic bags, it is much better to recycle them at stores with plastic bag bins than throw them away. You can find your closest plastic bag recycling drop-off location using Spokane Kootenai Waste Directory or by searching “plastic bag recycling” online. Some places, such as Lowe’s or Home Depot, also have bins for other items like CFL light bulbs and batteries. These items can also be taken to your local transfer station.

When recycling, it’s best to focus on the basics: paper and cardboard, plastic bottles (#1 and #2), and tin and aluminum cans. These materials alone make up a majority of our waste, and can significantly offset the amount of trash we send to the incinerator or landfill. Always ensure your recyclables are clean, dry, and empty, and if you’re unsure about an item’s recyclability, follow our motto: “When in doubt, throw it out!”