Seattle and King County will no longer accept plastic bags in recycling, beginning next year.
“They don’t end up getting recycled and they become an inefficient barrier to the recycling process,” said Pat McLaughlin, director of King County’s Solid Waste Division, of plastic bags and film. “The processing stream isn’t optimized to handle them.”
Plastic bags can tangle recycling collection machinery and contaminate otherwise marketable recyclables, said Kevin Kelly, the general manager of Recology King County, a recycling contractor in Seattle and King County.
Most of what Recology King County receives and sells is fiber, such as cardboard or paper, Kelly said. At material recovery facilities (MRFs, in industry parlance), which sort and process recycling, plastic can wrap around machinery and prevent screens from filtering out contaminants.
Kelly said bags and plastic film have to be cut out of equipment every day. Occasionally, the company has to shut down its facility to cut bags out with box cutters and saws.
“Once our shift is over, we put people in harnesses and they go in with pretty heavy equipment. They have to cut all these bags off screens,” Kelly said.
China, long the world’s top destination for recyclables, roiled the industry in January 2018 when it phased in a restriction on imports.
“For decades, China was taking these contaminated bales — paper bales with a lot of plastic and those things in them,” said Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington, an advocacy group. “Now they’ve said no, and our mills are clamping down.”
The country’s policy, called National Sword, pushed recyclers and municipalities to seek out different markets and improve recycling streams.
“Quality matters,” McLaughlin said.
Clean, dry plastic bags are recyclable and there is a market for them. The city and county are encouraging people to drop bags and plastic film with grocery stores and other participating retailers. Locations to drop off these materials are listed at https://www.plasticfilmrecycling.org/.
At these sites, retailers combine industrial packaging plastics with the dry-cleaning, retail and bread bags that consumers deposit. That material is shipped to recycling centers for processing in bulk, said Keith Christman, managing director for plastics markets at the American Chemistry Council, which has partnered with more than 18,000 grocery stores and retailers across the country to promote the system.
These plastics are often recycled into products like composite decking. The brand Trex, for example, combines plastic bags and sawdust for its products.
Officials don’t plan to penalize consumers who throw plastic bags in the garbage.
“My hope is the biggest consequence is for you to feel really guilty,” McLaughlin said.
Plastic bags and film — seemingly ubiquitous in the environment — represent a sliver of the recycling industry, said Brad Lovaas, the executive director of the Washington Refuse & Recycling Association, a trade organization.
“Plastics, in general, represent about 5 percent of the recycling stream,” Lovaas said, estimating that bags make up far less than 1 percent of the weight or volume that recyclers handle.
King County, not including Seattle, recycles about 21,000 tons of plastic each year, according to county officials and data spanning 2015-2017. About 113,000 tons of plastic end up in the trash. Of the plastic that ends up in the trash, about 4,600 tons are plastic shopping bags, according to the county.
Organizations like Zero Waste Washington have pushed for local ordinances banning plastic bags.
Trim said 33 communities in Washington have adopted plastic-bag bans.
“A year ago, we were at 23,” Trim said. “Our goal is to have less plastic in the long run. We really want less in the first place.”
A statewide plastic-bag ban introduced last session in the Legislature passed the Senate but did not gain approval in the House.
Trim said she expected the Legislature to take up a plastic-bag ban again next session.