Monday, February 9th, 2015
By SPI President and CEO William R. Carteaux
A Waste Management advertisement that ran during the 2015 Super Bowl incorrectly suggested that plastic bags aren’t recyclable. They very much are. In fact, the lightweight plastic bags the ad suggests aren’t recyclable are 100% recyclable, thanks in great part to a number of programs put together by the plastics industry and its partners.
Some background on the ad: Waste Management created the spot as part of its “Recycle Often. Recycle Right.” campaign. The initiative’s goals are noble—improving quality at the curb, reducing contamination in materials recovery facilities (MRFs) and for recyclers. These goals are shared part and parcel by SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association, at least until they get to the point where they suggest that plastic bags should be treated like trash. The ad in question depicts two animated curbside bins, one for recycling and one for garbage. The recycling one appears to be choking on a plastic retail bag, which it then coughs up as a voice says “not all plastics can be recycled” and the bag is collected by the other bin, the one made for garbage.
Waste Management sacrificed the facts for the sake of cuteness. Plastic bags are typically made from low-density polyethylene, a material that’s 100% recyclable. For example, one company, NOVOLEX, a member of SPI and the SPI-supported American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA), created a program years ago called “Bag-2-Bag,” which established over 30,000 plastic bag, film and wrap recycling points at grocery stores and retailers across the country. Customers can, and do, take their plastic bags back to these stations the next time they go shopping, and NOVOLEX can, and does, collect them and recycle them into new bags. Each year the company recycles more than 35 million pounds of plastic bags and polyethylene films (including product wrapping and dry cleaner bags) into new bags and other eco-friendly raw materials, demonstrating that these products are quite recyclable.
If Waste Management’s problem with plastic bags is that, when included in the recycling stream, they can gum up their machines and the operation of the MRFs, there are two solutions: they can buy equipment that enables them to recover plastic bags in the MRF environment (technologies that enable this are widely employed in Europe and in select MRFs in North America) and they can work with SPI and the APBA to educate consumers to recycle these materials properly through return-to-retail collection locations.
SPI applauds Waste Management for its dedication to sustainable practices and raising public awareness about recycling, but that’s what makes this ad such a disappointment. Rather than misleading the public, we should be working together to make plastic bag recycling easier and widespread. That way this valuable material can go on to have a second life as a new bag or another product, like plastic lumber. If the public listened to Waste Management’s Super Bowl ad, the effects could be devastating, and instead of slowing down operations in Waste Management’s MRFs or ending up in the appropriate recycling receptacles, plastic bags could end up in Waste Management’s landfills.
Plastic bags often don’t belong in a typical recycling bin, sure, but they also don’t belong in a landfill. Let’s work together to eliminate misconceptions about plastic bag recycling, and increase plastic bag recycling education.