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How Plastic Bags Affect the Recycling Process

Feb 2019


Here are several facts you should know about  flexible plastics:


  • What are flexible plastics? Flexible plastics are any plastic materials (often times bags or wrap) that are thin and flexible. They are commonly labeled with a #4 (sometimes #2). Examples: Grocery bags, Ziploc bags, bubble wrap, water bottle case shrink wrap, etc.


  • Our recycling process is comprised of a series of rods with spinning discs which move the material along. Flexible plastics of all kinds are thin and stretchy, and get wrapped around these spinning discs. 


  • Our facilities run 24/7, except for the time that is lost each day shutting down the entire line when we are required to manually cut and remove the tangled items from our screens. This process is exceptionally dangerous, and decreases the efficiency of the recycling process.


  • When customers put their recycling in plastic bags, we are unable to see the contents and are unwilling to risk the safety of our employees by ripping into a bag we can’t see through. Ultimately, bagged materials must be diverted as trash. Bagging recyclables hinders the sorting process, resulting in a lost effort to do the right thing. Plastic bags and other flexible plastics are a contaminant in the recycling stream, and therefore  have the potential to fail large loads of recycling based on the  volume of these materials.


  • Failed loads incur a price penalty based on the level of contamination. In many cases, the municipality will be charged contamination fees reflecting the level of non-recyclables, which includes bags and other flexible plastics.


After the challenge of the China National Sword program, reducing contamination rates in recycling has been of the utmost importance. Incorrect items such as plastic bags have negative consequences for everyone involved.


Gretchen Carey

Recycling & Organics Coordinator

LEED Green Associate

Zero Waste TRUE Advisor

Republic Services

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