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Beats Me answers your questions about how education, the environment, race and innovation impacts life in southeastern Wisconsin.

Are Plastic Bags Really Recycled?

Alesandra Tejeda
In the vast sea of plastic bags that fill our world, what is recyclable and is it actually being recycled?

Plastic is difficult to escape. Many products are wrapped, sealed and mailed in some sort of plastic material.

And it can be difficult to know what to do with plastic bags, especially since curbside programs in Milwaukee and throughout Wisconsin don't accept plastic bags. However, they can be put in collection bins at some grocery stores and other businesses.

But turns out, lots of people are confused about what sorts of plastic bags can be dropped off in those collection bins. As long as they're clean and dry, the items listed below can be dropped off:

  • Grocery bags
  • Bread bags
  • Case overwrap
  • Dry cleaning bags
  • Newspaper sleeves
  • Ice bags
  • Wood pellet bags
  • Ziploc and other resealable bags

(Those are all considered plastic film: soft, flexible polyethylene packaging.) 
But there’s still a pressing question: Are the plastic bags we're dropping off really recycled? 

Beats Me: What Questions Do You Have About Getting Rid Of Stuff You Don't Want?

To find out, we headed 30 miles west of Milwaukee to a Roundy's Supermarket distribution center. It coordinates pick ups and deliveries to 150 grocery stores, including Pick 'n Save and Mariano's in Wisconsin and Illinois. So, whatever plastic bags you drop off in the collection bins at the Roundy's stores it serves, end up at the center.

Credit Susan Bence
Roundy's is one of the grocery chains that recycles plastic bags, film and wrapping generated at its 150 stores in Wisconsin and Illinois and at the distribution center itself.

Senior Supply Chain Manager Richard Bridwell is in charge of everything that happens under the facility’s enormous roof. He says plastic film recycling is just one part of the corporation's green initiatives

And Roundy's recycles more plastic than what customers drop off. Back at the distribution center, the long rows of shelving are stacked with plastic-encased dry goods. Eventually, that plastic wrap is removed and recycled, Bridwell says.

“It’s the forklift guy’s job to cut the plastic off, he places it in the bag here. The sanitation guy picks them up and takes them down to the baler,” Bridwell says.

Credit Susan Bence
When this trailer is full it will be transported to Trex Company in Winchester, Va., and become part of composite outdoor decking and railings.

Bridwell estimates 60% of the plastic film his center processes is generated within the walls of the Roundy's distribution center. The next biggest chunk accumulates within the corporation's 150 grocery stores. After that, it’s the plastic customers drop off.

Four truckloads of baled plastic leave Bridwell’s dock every week. Last year, the distribution center passed along nearly 1,176 tons of plastic film to Trex in Winchester, Va. 

Trex partners with businesses around the country to create products, primarily outdoor decking and railing. Some of its Wisconsin partners include Copps Food Center, Festival Foods, Hyvee, Meijer, Piggly Wiggly and Target.

The products Trex makes are composed roughly of 50% plastic and 50% scraps from wood milling operations, says Trex Senior Director of Material Management Dave Heglas. Heglas compares the process to a big Play-Doh machine.

Credit Susan Bence
Decking is one of the major products Trex creates using recycled plastic film.

“You mix the two together, heat it up, continue to mix it and then squirt out decking and railing products,” Heglas says.

Trex has a second manufacturing plant in Nevada. It partners with more than 30,000 retailers around the country. That sounds like a lot, but Heglas says Trex is just scratching the surface of the amount of single-use plastic film generated around the country.

“For plastic in general, there’s estimates from two to three years ago that only about 9% was being recycled. Now, with the current market conditions, that number will probably will be significantly lower,” Heglas says. “My guess would be somewhere in the 3-4% range.”

READ: Wisconsin's Largest Landfill Wants To Expand

He says while Trex has grown, and therefore its capacity to recycle more plastic film has grown with it, there's still a lot of plastic that's not being recycled.

“We’re in the hundreds of millions and the plastic that is available is in billions. So yes, we’re growing, but we’re a small player if you consider all of the plastic that’s being generated and not being recycled,” he explains.

Heglas says he’s exploring new products so his company can collect and use more plastic film.

Other plastic resources

A number of organizations have funneled energy into encouraging and clarifying plastic film recycling.  Some encourage consumers to move away from picking up or purchasing the material altogether. 

Credit MaryLou Lamonda
A grassroots group called Plastic Free MKE is creating a buzz. Its "Plastic Bag Monster" gives a free cloth shopping bag to people who can guess the number of bags the average person uses in a year.

Recycle, reuse, throw away: What questions do you have about getting rid of the stuff you don't want? Submit below.


Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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