If you’ve ever dropped a potato chip bag into a recycling bin full of bottles and cans and hoped it might get recycled, there’s something you should know: It’s almost certainly sitting in a landfill right now. A recycling center employee or an automated sorting system most likely found the bag and removed it from the other household recyclables.
Each year, people trash 12 billion tons of flexible plastic packaging, according to the consultancy Resource Recycling Systems. Cheap and ubiquitous, items like grocery, dog food, and snack bags are recyclable in theory but are often made from layers of different materials that are too costly and difficult for recyclers to process. They can tangle sorting equipment, causing damage or delays at sorting plants; they might be too dirty from food scraps or grease to be of any value; and they often get mistaken for paper and baled with the wrong materials, compromising a whole shipment’s worth of recyclables. It’s easier and cheaper for recyclers to send most flexible plastics to a landfill.
But change is afoot as awareness swells around the environmental risks of plastic pollution and people demand meaningful solutions to the waste crisis. A coalition of plastic producers, recyclers, and consumer goods companies has a plan to make it OK for people to throw chip bags and grocery sacks into their home recycling bins along with their household’s milk cartons and detergent bottles.
The effort is starting small: A waste management company in Pennsylvania, J.P. Mascaro & Sons, is quietly running a trial of a program to take flexible plastics from curbside recycling pickups and turn them into new products rather than send them to landfills. The company’s sorting facility, TotalRecycle, has partnered with a handful of regional businesses interested in making secondhand plastic packaging into items like floor mats for cars and equipment for drainage systems.
It’s a project with many hurdles and no guarantee of success. But those involved feel a sense of urgency to get it right.
“It’s only a matter of time before the landfill space runs out,” said Frank Sau, communications director for Mascaro & Sons, which also manages several local landfills.
The company serves 90 municipalities across 12 counties in Pennsylvania and already gets a staggering amount of flexible plastics, even though people haven’t been instructed to recycle it yet. (That will happen later this summer. In the meantime, the program is benefiting from many people’s misunderstanding about what’s actually supposed to go in the bin.) Director Joseph Mascaro told HuffPost that flexible plastics account for 1 percent of his recycling haul, or about 100 tons a month.