When announcing the end of recycling plastic bags, the City of Madison did direct residents to recycle bags at a number of grocery stores throughout the Madison area.
Amidst the many social media comments on our story, one WORT listener asked us this question: why can grocery stores recycle plastic bags while the city cannot?
To answer that question, let’s take a look at where plastic bags go.
First, people manually return plastic bags to stores participating in the program. Those stores then bundle the bags and send them off to other locations. Capitol Center Foods, for instance, sends them to the CertCo warehouse in Fitchburg. From that warehouse, they are sent to a facility run by Waste Management, located off Fish Hatchery Road, south of Madison. According to Lyn Morgan, Waste Management’s Wisconsin regional director, those bags then get sent away to turn into new products.
“We send plastic bags to secondary processors, who use them to make resin pellets. Those resin pellets are then used to make new products, including plastic garbage bags. We are also in the process of testing an alternative to use the bags to make plastic lumber,” says Morgan.
When asked how Waste Management can recycle plastic bags while the City of Madison cannot, Morgan said it’s because this program is only for plastic bags, so the bags are not exposed to contaminants.
“The bags that are collected there are clean, and accepted by market. On the other hand, if you put these bags in your mixed recyclables, they are no longer recyclable because of contaminants. The right way to do it is to keep them separate from other materials and take them back to a retail drop-off point.”
NPR reporter Laura Sullivan has been investigating how big oil has misled the public on plastic recycling. Speaking to WORT last month, Sullivan said a big issue with recycling actually working is contamination of plastic from other things in the recycling bin.
The City of Madison and other municipalities are prohibited from curbing the use of plastic bags through economic means. Under a GOP-led law from 2016, municipalities are prohibited from banning or taxing the use of plastic bags — leaving municipalities little other option.
Bryan Johnson is a spokesperson for the city of Madison streets division. He says that the City’s list of grocery stores that accept plastic bags is not comprehensive, and there may be more in the area.
The stores listed on the website are Capital Center Foods, Festival Foods on East Washington, seven Pick ‘n Save locations, two Hyvees, two Kohl’s, two Metcalfe’s, the Trader Joe’s on Monroe Street, two Walmarts, two Woodman’s, and all three Madison-based Target locations.
Plastic bags returned must be returned to retailers empty, clean and dry.