Dear Recyclebank: Following a recyclables pickup, I frequently find light recyclables, especially mail and envelopes, on my sidewalk and street. I watched once as they were loaded and saw these items fly away as the can was being lifted and dumped. I've seen clear recycling bags at the supermarket and wondered if these are allowable to contain recycling so they end up in the truck as planned. –Joanne G.
Dear Joanne: As with so many recycling conundrums, the short answer is that it depends on your local hauler. Most programs ask consumers to leave items loose in the bin rather than bagging them, because plastic bags — whether they’re loose plastic grocery bags or large plastic bags containing your recyclables — can be tricky to recycle. Bags get caught in machinery that isn't designed to handle them, slowing down operations and possibly damaging the equipment. This cuts into profit margins considerably. The Chicago Tribune interviewed an area recycling director who estimated that his plant loses $9500 a month in labor costs alone, and these costs end up passed along to you. If your city hasn't explicitly specified that they can go in the bin, please don't try those "recycling" bags out!
That said, there are a few municipalities that do collect plastic bags curbside, such as Seattle, WA, and Madison, WI. Generally, these are places with the proper equipment to process plastic bags, though restrictions may still apply (Seattle and Madison both require all bags to be put in one bag). Alternately, the handler may send them to another location, as would happen to bags that go through a drop-off recycling program like you might see in your grocery store. Still, this process requires sorting and shipping. Even if the handler recycles bags on site, dealing with an extra bag requires time and energy that adds up.
If you're concerned about light recyclables getting loose, and your recycling program is single-stream, consider putting heavier recyclables on top to hold down lighter recyclables until the can is put out for pick up. Better yet, contact your handler directly. They should be able to tell you how they would prefer loose papers to be handled; for instance, some programs ask that shredded paper be put in a brown paper bag. Hearing from you may also help them identify ways their pickup methods could create less litter.