Photo courtesy Christopher Vega on Unsplash.
On Tuesday, the Madison Streets Division announced that the city would cease recycling plastic film and plastic bags – and that residents should no longer place plastic bags into their recycling.
But according to city recycling spokesman Bryan Johnson, recycling plastic bags has always been somewhat problematic.
“We were unique in the state. We were the only one in the state even attempting to allow properly prepared plastic film and bags placed into recycling carts. They are a notorious problem for recycling systems. Those plastic bags, especially when loose in the system, always gummed things up. [They would get] wrapped around screens and clog robots used for the sorting of materials,” says Johnson.
Plastic bags had been collected and sold off by local waste management company Pelliteri Waste Systems. But according to Danielle Pelliterri, vice president of the company, there’s no longer a market for the plastic bags Madison residents consume and throw away.
And to explain why, prepare for a brief dive into global trade.
When plastic film is placed in recycling bins alongside other materials, the plastic becomes contaminated. That plastic then gets sold to other markets.
But the shipping of contaminated plastic to other countries has gotten increasingly difficult. The New York Times reports that the bulk of recycled American plastic used to be shipped to China. In 2018, China banned the shipment of plastic scrap, saying it didn’t want to be the world’s garbage dump. As a result, finding a new market for contaminated plastic has been difficult.
Pellitteri says it can no longer sell the plastic off — and since plastic is not biodegradable, they have simply chosen to stop processing plastic bags.
Meanwhile, municipalities in Wisconsin are hamstrung. A GOP-led state law enacted in 2016 prevents local governments from regulating the use of plastic bags and other recyclables.
A recent investigation from NPR finds that a great deal of the plastic thought by Americans to be recycled, actually isn’t.
Jim Puckett is the executive director of the Basel Action Network, an environmental nonprofit that lobbies against the trade of plastic waste. Puckkett says an outright ban on these plastics is the only viable long-term solution.
“If you’ve got a tremendous waste problem, and you have no way to clean it up on the back end, then you have to turn off the tap. Right now, we have all this plastic being produced. It’s designed for the dump, it lasts forever in the environment, and the recycling is not viable,” says Puckett.
With recycling stymied by global trade, and reducing stymied by state government, there are few options for Madison residents. You can reduce your personal use of plastic bags, and aim to reuse the plastic bags you do consume.
A statement from the Madison Streets Division announcing today’s news suggests residents return plastic bags to retailers. It also suggests residents use alternatives, such as reusable bags or paper bags.
UPDATED: A list of retailers and grocery stores who will accept your plastic bags is available HERE.