Plastic bags are one of the largest sources of contamination in Washington’s residential recycling stream. These bags can clog recycling machinery, contaminate other recyclable materials, and lead to more potentially recyclable material ending up in the landfill.
How big a problem is it? According to a Washington Department of Ecology survey, 20% of residents put their recyclables in plastic bags before placing them in a curbside recycling bin. A new statewide “Recycle Right” initiative led by Ecology aims to provide education on how everyone can pitch in to improve our recycling system.
Plastic bags are not recyclable in Washington’s curbside recycling programs. When people place recyclable items in a bag, it makes them impossible to sort. As a result, all bagged items are pulled from the sorting line and the contents are sent to the landfill because workers at recycling facilities cannot see what is inside. The bags that make it past the workers can get tangled in the sorting equipment – causing stoppages – or become mixed with other materials, reducing their value and recyclability.
“People in Washington value the environment, and they are enthusiastic about recycling – but bagging your recyclables does more harm than good,” said Laura Watson, Ecology’s director. “We know people want to ‘Recycle Right,’ so this new campaign will help them take simple steps to improve the system.”
The Recycle Right campaign is designed to inform people about the challenges caused by bagging recyclables and improve their recycling behaviors.
So, why are people bagging their recyclables in the first place?Ecology’s survey found that residents bag their recyclables for many reasons. Some are motivated by convenience and the ease of carrying recyclables to the bin, while others are concerned with cleanliness and odor control. Some people believe bagged recyclables are helpful for recycling haulers or that the bags themselves are recyclable.
“It is great that we all do our part to recycle, but it is important that we recycle right so our actions help more than they harm,” said Dan Weston, Ecology’s statewide recycling coordinator. “When you bag your recyclables before tossing them into the curbside bin, not only will your items not get recycled, but it also causes a strain on our facilities and disrupts the recycling process.”
The campaign features online and social media advertising, billboards, radio spots, and public service announcements in English and Spanish. An online toolkit provides information and resources for partners to share through additional channels. Washington residents will see and hear Recycle Right ads throughout April.