Dear Recyclebank: Can the plastic bags and clamshell containers that produce comes in be recycled? –Carla
Dear Carla: The short answer: Yes and no. Produce comes packaged in a number of different forms; plastic rip-from-the-roll bags, plastic clamshell containers, plastic mesh bags, and plastic berry baskets are some of the most common. With so many different containers on the market, it can be difficult to determine which of them, if any, are environmentally sound. Plastic is categorized in seven different groups, each of which identifies the type of resin the plastic is made of. This Resin Identification Code [RIC] — also called Resin Identification Numbers [RIN] — is listed in
triangular symbols found on plastic containers. These numbers ultimately determine the recyclability of the plastic.
The most prevalent type of produce packaging, the plastic rip-from-the-roll bag, has historically been the most difficult to dispose of consciously. Plastic bags have a tendency to get stuck in the machinery recycling plants use for sorting, so most facilities did not accept them. Plastic bags are often made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE), RIC #2, but can also be made of low-density polyethylene (LDPE), RIC # 4. Some curbside programs may list these RICs as acceptable, but generally they refer to plastics that are in sturdy, container forms and not bags and film. You should therefore never put plastic bags and film out with your recyclables. Many grocery stores such as Target, Walmart, Publix, Whole Foods, Safeway, Stop and Shop, Piggly Wiggly, and King Kullen are now collecting these plastic bags for recycling at store entrances. Keep your plastic bags in a bunch, and bring them with you the next time you run out to the grocery store. Once you get rid of the ones you’ve been hoarding, consider switching to reusable, cotton net produce bags like the ones sold by Ecobags.
Berries used to come in small pulp-paper cartons, which you could compost or, if it wasn’t soiled with fruit juice, put out with your paper recycling, but plastic clamshells seem to have replaced them almost everywhere except at farmers markets. These thermoformed plastic containers are often used for packaging berries, grapes, tomatoes, and fresh herbs. Plastic clamshell containers are made of thermoformed polyethylene terephthalate (PET), RIC # 1. According to Plastic News, as recently as 2010 thermoformed plastic was not recyclable, but (thankfully), there’s been incredible progress in recycling practices since then — in 2013, 60 million pounds of thermoformed plastic was recycled in America and Canada alone. During the recycling process, PET is shredded and used for fiberfill stuffing, carpeting, automotive parts, upholstery and other textiles.
Plastic mesh produce bags, often used for things like garlic and citrus, and plastic berry baskets, are more difficult to recycle than the products outlined above. These are generally made of polypropylene (PP), RIC #5. Few curbside programs accept polypropylene, but there are some cities leading the way and accepting #5 plastics, like Brookhaven, NY, and Philadelphia, PA. If you can’t find a program near you that accepts these items, use them to hold and drain bath toys, wet bathing suits, sponges and loofas.
To find a recycling center near you that accepts some of these hard to recycle items, check out RecycleNation. If your town doesn’t accept plastic bags and your local grocery stores don’t yet have a storefront recycling bin, plasticfilmrecycling.org has a great search function to help find a plastic film drop-off location.