Dear Recyclebank: It occurred to me recently that garbage bags are probably recyclable along with other plastic bags. What happens to used garbage bags? Do they go to the landfill or are they separated for recycling? Is there a way to avoid this extra waste? –Bill G.
Dear Bill: Used garbage bags themselves, if they are clean and dry, can be recycled along with other plastic bags and films at proper recycling facilities (find a drop-off location near you at PlasticFilmRecycling.org). But when garbage bags are used to collect dirty, wet, non-recyclable trash — as they often are — the whole package heads for the nearest landfill or incinerator. The trash bags, unfortunately, are never separated from their contents for recycling. Even if they were separated, they’d most likely be soiled, and would contaminate the recycling process.
There are several bag manufacturers out there trying to address your concern about recyclable bags going to the landfill by providing biodegradable, oxo-degradable, or compostable trash bags. But a lot of times, these terms end up being misleading, and aren’t really that helpful. Here’s a quick rundown:
- A biodegradable trash bag will break down into biological components and return to the environment to be used again if it’s exposed to microbes and oxygen, which are essential to the natural decaying process. Yet, the process of natural decomposition hardly happens when your trash sits in a landfill, where oxygen can’t reach any of the trash. Instead, your biodegradable bag and other organics end up creating methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
- Some companies use additives in regular, petroleum-based plastic bags to make oxo-degradable bags, which fall apart into small plastic pieces as they degrade. Oxo-degradable bags face the same challenges as biodegradable bags in a landfill lacking oxygen, but they are never compostable, and it’s not clear if the small plastic fragments do more harm than good to the environment before they biodegrade.
- With the right levels of temperature, moisture, oxygen and microbes, a compostable bag will break down into organic waste to create compost. But they won’t be composted in a landfill, and your backyard composting pile won’t cut it: Compostable bags and plastics can only decompose in commercial composting facilities that create just the right conditions to handle the job.
If you want to use a biodegradable, compostable bag, make sure it is BPI certified, as that provides assurance of the product’s compostability or biodegradability. Then use it for something like lining your compost bin, and make sure the bag gets to a composting facility — not your backyard compost pile or a landfill. And another caveat to remember: Biodegradable and compostable bags should not be recycled with the other plastic bags, as they will contaminate the all-petroleum based plastic bag recycling process.
Still, there are things you can do to green your trash bag use. A possible option is to use garbage bags made mostly of post-consumer recycled material. This reduces the need to produce new plastic, which in turn reduces oil and energy consumption. You can also try to minimize the number of trash bags you use the good old-fashioned way, by creating less waste. Instead, recycle and reuse as much as possible, and avoid unnecessary packaging.