Recycling plastic correctly can be a challenge for even the most well-intentioned people. Some plastic we see has numbers on them, but those are not a clear guide about what to do with something. How to Recycle logos are becoming more common but are still used infrequently.
For those confused like we were, we have some information to share about a particularly problematic type of plastic known as plastic film that we learned can be recycled (just not in your bins). As the picture of Owen above shows, there is so much of this stuff going around!
What is plastic film?
In technical terms, plastic film is usually made up of low-density polyethylene (or LDPE) and sometimes carries the plastic #4 logo. More practically we like to think of it as anything that’s ‘scrunchable’ and a single material (meaning it does not have metal or paper in it or affixed to it). Packaging is often made up of plastic film because of how lightweight and flexible it is. Here are some examples:
Another clue you might have some plastic film is the ‘how to recycle’ logo that indicates store drop off.
Hot tip – keep an eye out for this one at the grocery store and in many of your Amazon packages!
What is not plastic film?
When plastic film is mixed with other materials like paper (padded envelopes) or metal (chip bags), it can no longer be recycled even through drop off locations. Processors are unable to easily separate components with products like those two. When plastic film has food on it, it also makes it so it can’t be recycled. The inner lining of cereal bags is a common offender. Finally, if plastic is hard and can’t be ‘scrunched’ then it’s fine to go in your standard curbside bin.
Why plastic film shouldn’t go in your curbside bin
Our modern recycling centers were not set up to handle plastic film. These facilities do a great job of separating sturdier material like metal, glass, and even higher-density plastic like detergent bottles. Plastic film is a different story as their shape and weight cause them to get caught in the machinery. When this happens, the entire line stops and we learned on a tour that this happens multiple times per day. Loose plastic film is the main contributor to this, but even bagged plastic can cause problems as it can come apart and requires people to remove it manually from the process. That’s why PBS recently produced a video urging consumers to not recycle this type curbside:
But going in the trash is not a great answer either
Throwing plastic film away prevents it from jeopardizing the viability of our recycling programs, but comes with other issues. Thin plastics are lightweight and can blow around taking them to a host of unfortunate places. We’ve seen this happen both as litter on our streets and when we saw it circulating at a local landfill we visited. Some inevitably reach our waterways, including the Puget Sound in our area.
Even if plastic film makes it to the landfill, it’s composition makes sure it stays there for a very long time. According to a National Geographic article, estimates for the length of time plastic takes to break down range from 450 years to forever. That’s a long time!
What can be done instead
Fortunately, there is a better option than throwing your plastic film away or sending it away in your blue bin. That option is dedicated plastic film recyclers and we were thrilled to learn that drop off locations exist for these in our community.
Some grocery stores like Target, Fred Meyer, and certain QFCs have bins for this type of plastic. We’ve started taking our clean and dry plastic film there and have been amazed about how much has been diverted to a better destination. We learned plastic film is a component of decking material like Trex and are thrilled that our plastic film is used for this purpose instead of alternatives.