Plastic bags not recyclable in campus bins


Jennifer McLaughlin Columnist

Jennifer McLaughlin, Sustainability Specialist (She/her)

Last summer, plastic bags were taken off the recyclable list for Brookings and South Dakota State University and remain unrecyclable in single stream recycling today. This includes plastic bags alone and plastic bags used to collect recyclables before tossing them in the dumpster. But why?

Plastics come in all different types and qualities. Some plastics are more recyclable than others and go through the recycling process more easily. For example, certain plastics are so thin that they burn during the melting process. That does not work well if you want to make new products.

Another key reason for what can and cannot be recycled is the market. Even if there is an effective means to recycle material, if there is no business that wants to use the material, it is not worth the cost and energy to send it through the recycling process. Glass is a great example of this.

Glass is incredibly recyclable and can be recycled multiple times without the quality being downgraded; however, it is currently cheaper to purchase virgin materials than it is to use recycled glass to make new products.

Plastic bags fall in both categories mentioned above.

For one, they are incredibly difficult to send through the recycling process. In fact, they have to be pulled off manually, otherwise they get caught in the machines so badly the machines have to be shut down. There is also no market for plastic bags in the single stream recycling system (when all types of recyclables are collected together).

Why isn’t there a market? One reason is quantity. There are so many discarded plastic bags the specialty markets that do tackle plastic bag recycling have far more bags flowing through the market than they require to satisfy their needs.

What should I do as an avid recycler, you ask?

The best thing you can do is avoid getting plastic bags in the first place.

Reusable bags are a great replacement for plastic bags when you go out shopping. But, even if you forget your reusable bags or COVID-19 restrictions limit your ability to use them, you can get creative in carrying your items.

If it is just a few items, carry them out without a bag. If you have more items than you can carry in your arms, consider placing them back into the shopping cart without a bag, then placing them in your vehicle loose or in your reusable bags you’ve left in your car.

Not sure how to collect your recyclables without a bag?

Place items directly into your recycling bin, then dump that bin’s contents directly into the recycling dumpster. When the bin gets dirty, you can simply wipe it down with a household cleaner.

But sometimes getting a plastic bag is unavoidable. In that case, here are few suggestions for how to minimize their environmental impact. If possible, reuse the bags. They make great trash bin liners and doggie poop bags. If you are artistic, you can croquet multiple bags together to make a reusable bag. 

Look for nonprofits that can reuse plastic bags as well. Here in Brookings, the Humane Society appreciates plastic bag donations to use for cleaning up after the pooches.

 Finally, you can also look for companies that specialize in plastic bag recycling. In Brookings, both Walmart and HyVee have collection bins in their lobbies that collect plastic bags for these companies, though some have halted their collections due to COVID-19.