Should Plastic Bags Be Recycled or Banned?

Written by Margaret Badore

California has become an interesting test-case for both approaches to one plastic problem.

Back in 2006, California passed a law that mandated a system for recycling plastic shopping bags. Today, supermarkets and other large stores have receptacles where plastic bags can be returned for recycling.

However, a recent report from the Associated Press found that it’s difficult to measure how successful this program has been. They found that the data collected by the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery has not been analyzed since 2009, when about 3 percent of bags made it to recycling. The department did provide reporters with the raw data:

“Retailers reported purchasing 62.3 million pounds of bags in 2012, down from 107.4 million in 2008. They reported 4 million pounds of bags and 27 million pounds of mixed bags and plastic film were returned for recycling in 2012.

But those figures don’t reveal how many bags were recycled. A study by California State University, Sacramento, which calculated previous recycling rates, showed the store-submitted totals for collected bags often included other materials. Without verifying the stores’ totals, it’s impossible to say how much was from bags, plastic film or general garbage.”

Spokesman Mark Oldfield said the recycling department doesn’t have enough funding to do the proper analysis.

The recycling program stands in contrast to plastic bag bans, which have been passed in over 80 California cities and municipalities. Los Angeles will have a ban going into effect in January.

Eric Bradley, reporting for the Press-Telegram, spoke with Environmental Services Bureau Manager Jim Kuhl about the success of Long Beach’s ban. Kuhl says that the community now has 100 percent compliance, and has only had one infraction since the ban was introduced two years ago.

“There was really no push-back on it,” Kuhl said of the ban that went into effect Aug. 1, 2011, for large retailers and five months later for smaller shops. “I believe the grocers and the retailers realize the public would like to see a reduction in plastic bags.”

It’s unfortunate that we don’t have a quantifiable idea of how well the recycling program is working. On one hand, we should have a system to manage all of the plastic bags that are already out there, and it would be good to keep them out landfills and the landscape. On the other hand, recycling does come with embedded energy costs that can be avoided altogether by choosing a re-usable shopping bag–and bans are proving to be the best way to get everyone on board.

This post was originally published in TreeHugger

Photo Credit: Aaron "Tango" Tang via Flickr


Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Biby C.
Biby C4 years ago

Using plastic bags as garbage can liners can hardly be called recycling. They still end up in the landfill one day. Charging 5 or 10 cents a bag is not the answer either. Given how inflation has pushed up prices of everything these days 10 cents is practically nothing! And seeing how dependent we've become on plastic bags, banning it is also not a practical solution. The plastic bag IS useful in certain situations. People's mindset need to change. Use them only when absolutely necessary.

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson4 years ago

i cut them into plarn and make a living out of the sales of things I make from said plarn :)

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill4 years ago

I recycle them. I use them for bathroom can liners, to hold recycle plastic (other), and then take the rest to a small business in my town to use for their customers.

I miss the paper bags though, I used the grocery bags for the kitchen can. They held more and stood up in the trunk of the car so items didn't go rolling all over the trunk.

Stanley R.
Stanley R4 years ago

Banning plastic bags, then what? Use paper bags? Burn down more forests of tress for the pulp to make paper? What we need is hemp. Hemp bags, durable, renewable, and economical. It was the Randolph Hearst the Newspaper tycoon who instigated the demise of hemp production, as it threatened the paper Industry. We need to step up our activism and call for hemp to be reintroduced into the market economy.

Melania Padilla
Melania P4 years ago

BANNED.... Is is so hard to use your own reusable bags??

Ruhee B.
Ruhee B4 years ago

People are lazy and as long as there are bags available they will use them. Here in the U.K a few places charge a small cost (5-10p) for a plastic bag. I don't really see people using less plastic bags here even with the charge. Ban the plastic bags I say - you have to treat people (esp lazy ones!!) like kids - don't even give them the option!!

debby ro
Deborah ro4 years ago

Ban plastic bags ...I still remember the days we shopped with recycled newspaper bags ....people lived and shopped thousands of years without plastic ...

Jeannine Johnson
Jeannine Johnson4 years ago

I go shopping at BJ 's Wholesale A Club Where I Bring my own bags and save a lot !

Jeannine Johnson
Jeannine Johnson4 years ago

Stop Being Lazy And Recycle !