Looking for Clarity in Recycling Plastic Bags

By George Stubbs

Due to a new city ordinance, local retailers like Whole Foods and Shaw’s market can no longer distribute plastic bags to take home your groceries, but plastic bags still find their way into our lives, and they need to be recycled properly. These two merchants, at least, are still providing bins at their stores here in Melrose where you can return those bags.

But have you ever wondered exactly which kinds of bags to return? Is it just the plastic bags you receive at checkout? Or can you also return the bags that your bread comes in? How about Ziploc bags?

On the “Because You Asked” page at its web site, New York City-based waste management innovator RecycleBank recently attempted to offer some clarity on the subject. In addition, the American Chemistry Council—which of course wants us to keep buying plastic products—provides advice on recycling plastic bags through its PlasticFilmRecycling.org web site.

As RecycleBank notes, what the grocery stores are accepting for recycling is polyethylene film of various types, including high-density polyethylene (HDPE, or #2 plastic) and low-density polyethylene (LDPE, or #4 plastic). But there are other types of plastic film products that are acceptable as well. The bags your bread often comes in are a good example. You can recycle Ziploc bags as well.

Other examples include newspaper bags and dry-cleaning bags. Also, the “product overwrap”—the plastic film that wraps a multipack of, say, paper towels—is acceptable, according to the American Chemistry Council. Similarly, you can recycle the case wrap that your 24-pack of bottled water comes in—but do consider the alternative of a reusable water bottle). Produce bags can also be recycled, but again, there are alternatives. Several vendors, such Earthwise and EcoBags, offer washable cloth bags for your produce.


Bags for frozen vegetables are not acceptable. The plastic films used to make these bags contain additives that are designed to protect the food but render them inappropriate for reprocessing. You can cut down on the purchase of frozen vegetables by purchasing fresh produce and storing it in Ziplocs or similar food storage bags.

Remember, whatever type of plastic bag or wrapping you’re trying to recycle, make sure it’s clean, dry, and free of food residue. And please: never put plastic bags in your curbside recycling bin. They gum up the works at most materials recycling facilities, including the one that serves Melros


Some Hope in the Fight to Clean Up Ocean-Dumped Plastics

By George Stubbs

Sometime later this year, the first significant volume of plastic waste dumped in the ocean may be recovered for reprocessing, thanks to the ingenuity of a 23-year-old entrepreneur. A recent article in Fast Company recalls the journey of Boyan Slat, who at a TEDx talk six years ago presented the concept of a barrier that uses the ocean’s movement to collect plastic pieces swirling in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other ocean “gyres” containing billions and billions of pieces of plastic waste.

Today, the article reports, Slat and his team are in the process of building a 2,000-foot floating tube, made of HDPE, that will “be flexible enough to bend with the waves, but rigid enough to form a U-shaped barrier to stop the plastic floating on the ocean’s surface.” Within a few weeks, the developers plan to test a section of the tube in the waters off of San Francisco. If that test proves successful, they’ll bring the section back for full assembly and then conduct a “tow test” of the entire system about 200 miles offshore.

Slat is starting big because, he believes, the problem of ocean plastic is big, and smaller-scale solutions won’t be up to the task of dealing with it within any reasonable time frame. We continue to dispose of our plastic waste improperly at a rapid rate, and of course much of that waste ends up in the ocean.

“I think very often problems are so big, people approach problems from the bottom up: ‘If only I do this little bit, then hopefully there will be some sort of snowball effect that will be bigger and bigger,’” he told Fast Company. “I’m much more in favor of the top-down approach to problem-solving. Really ask, if the problem is this big, how do you get to 100%? Then knowing what it takes to get to 100%, work your way back. Well, what do I have to do now?” Of course, Slat believes we have to find solutions and the front end—not only to prevent improper dumping, but generating less plastic waste to begin with.

Learn more about Boyan’s effort, which he calls “The Ocean Cleanup,” at the organization’s web site. According to The Ocean Cleanup, which has a staff of more than 70 engineers, researchers, scientists, and computational modelers working on the ocean waste problem, there are currently over 5 trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is only the largest of them. As this blog has reported in the past, these plastics are becoming a hazard to marine life and may pose health problems to the food chain, all the way up to our own tables.

The Ocean Cleanup, which is based in Rotterdam, has lofty ambitions. Slat and his team would like to develop technologies that could clean up 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within five years. Best of luck to you, Boyan.

The scope of the ocean plastics problem was recently outlined in the July 27, 2018, issue of The Week (Vol. 18, Issue 883). Here are the key take-aways in bullet form (thanks to MRC member Tom Middleton for putting this summary together):

  • Human beings have put 14 million tons of plastic into the oceans.
  • In 2015, researchers analyzed trash in the ocean and found that 99.9% of it was plastic.
  • According to the World Economic Forum, by 2050, there will be more plastic, by weight, in the ocean than fish.
  • Most of the plastic ends up in five piles of plastic called gyres, which are created by ocean currents.
  • The largest of these is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is twice the size of Texas.
  • Five gyres cover 40% of the earth’s ocean surfaces.
  • It would take 1,000 boats cleaning water 24/7 79 years to clean it up.
  • Marine life research is incomplete, but fish raised in waters with lots of plastic have been found to be “smaller, slower, and more stupid” than regular fish.
  • A dead whale was found with 17 pounds of plastic in its stomach, including 80 shopping bags.
  • Two studies show that 83% of world’s drinking water contains plastic, and that 93% of bottled water contains some plastic.
  • Lots of seafood now contain plastic.
  • Scientists feel that global cooperation is needed to defeat the problem. People are trying, by not using plastic, banning certain types (single-use), making all plastic packaging recyclable, and (as illustrated above) developing innovative technologies to clean up the oceans.

As I said, best of luck, Boyan.

Plastics under attack–but so is recycling

by George Stubbs

A couple of items from the news of June 5, 2018–one offering encouragement, another a cause for concern.

The BBC reports that, according to a recent report by the United Nations, some 50 nations around the world are taking aim at plastic products, with measures designed to reduce their use, require their proper disposal, and, ultimately, keep plastic waste off beaches and out of waterways and marine environments. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that measures by these various nations are not always being adequately enforced.

There are many factors compelling countries to encourage reductions in the use of plastic products. Sometimes, it’s simply bad press, as in the United Kingdom, where media coverage is highlighting the negative impacts of improperly disposed of plastic wastes.

In other countries, the harm caused plastic waste is more directly or immediately felt, the BBC says. In some jurisdictions, plastic waste is causing flooding by clogging storm drains. In others, cattle are eating the waste, causing–to say the least–health problems.

Countries that need to get their regulatory regimes right include Botswana, where a charge to retailers that offer plastic bags has not been enforced, and the program has been deemed a failure. In Vietnam, a tax on plastic bags has not reduced their use, so the government is considering raising the tax by a factor of five.

There have been successes. A ban on plastic bags in Eritrea has helped to clear storm drains. In Ireland, a tax has led to a 90% reduction in consumption. Morocco has banned plastic bags and conducted seizures–up to 421 tons in one year–and consumers now use fabric-based bags.

The authors of the UN report suggest that more needs to be done to engage businesses in helping to make the switch from plastic bags and other plastic products to more environmentally friendly alternatives.

Separately, a front-page story in the June 5 edition of the Boston Globe offers some brim news for proponents of recycling. The Globe reports that several Massachusetts municipalities are taking a hit on their recycling budgets in the wake of China’s ban on imports of recyclable materials that don’t meet purity standards. The materials are piling up at recycling facilities for lack of options on where to send them, leading to rising costs for the waste management companies, which are passing those costs onto their municipal customers.

China’s new policy was announced last summer and took effect on January 1 of this year. As part of the policy, according to the Globe, China is banning outright 24 categories of material, including mixed paper and certain classes of plastics. As a result of the pressures that some waste management companies exerting, including dramatic increases in the prices of recycling services, some municipalities are taking drastic measures. Plymouth has suspended its curbside recycling program. New Bedford has filed a lawsuit against its vendor, ABC Disposal Service, which has threatened to cease the collection of recyclables in that city and surrounding communities.

Obviously, the terms of existing contracts will be a factor in how municipalities and their vendors deal with the respective situations. But without question, the issue is a serious one, and not just confined to Massachusetts, as is evident in this recent article in Williamette Week in Oregon. Recycling proponents everywhere with be tasked with working closely with the city officials to ensure that the circular economy model keeps working.

One pressing need is for added capacity in the United States to turn secondary materials into new products. A look at the literature suggests that there is no shortage of ideas out there, but more capital investment will be necessary.

Just as importantly, we need to do a better job in sorting the materials, and that begins on our own curbsides. Melrose residents have done a good job in heeding the advice of the DPW and the Melrose Recycling Committee–by getting plastic bags out of the recycling bins, for example–but a lot more work needs to be done.

Another Successful Cleanup Day

In a contrast with recent years, the weather smiled upon volunteers who showed up for the Community Cleanup on Saturday, May 5. People young and old gathered near the dog park at the Knoll and dispersed to several locations around the city to clean up trash that has accumulated over the past year.

As in previous springs, the Community Cleanup, sponsored by the Melrose Recycling Committee, was held in conjunction with the Ell Pond cleanup, an annual initiative of the Ell Pond Improvement Council. 20180505_104036As MRC volunteers proceeded to the middle school and high school grounds, the skate park, and other locations, the Ell Pond group removed trash and brush from the pond’s shoreline and deployed an “armada” of two kayaks to remove garbage from the water itself.

Volunteers from both groups paid particular attention to the pond’s outlet near Main Street, where trash washed or thrown into the pond tends to gather. The cleanup of the outlet area was reported to be particularly challenging. As one of the pictures here shows, low res-Mute Swan on bottle nest2 - close-up 0U1A0219trash has also made its way to the nest of two swans who have taken up residence in Ell Pond.

Indeed, there was much to do, even though a Facebook-organized group had done some cleanup around the city the weekend before.

In addition to cleaning up the school grounds and some of the public spaces around the immediate vicinity of Ell Pond, a group of volunteers drove over to the Swain’s Pond and Penney Road area and picked up several bags of trash there.

Many thanks to the volunteers who showed up on May 5–and to the groups of residents who were active the weekend before. And as always, many thanks to the Melrose Department of Public Works for its support for these cleanup efforts. Here’s hoping that many more people in Melrose can step up to help the city remain clean.

Recycling Committee to feature “T-shirts to Bags,” composting information at Healthy Melrose Fair

As it has for the last several years, the Melrose Recycling Committee (MRC) will participate in this year’s Healthy Melrose Fair, where committee members will provide information and answer questions about recycling in Melrose and about city’s new “BYOBag” ordinance that will restrict the distribution of single-use plastic bags in Melrose.

To help residents prepare for the new BYOBag ordinance, the Melrose Recycling Committee will make T-shirts into reusable bags at this year’s Healthy Melrose Fair. The Committee invites attendees to bring a T-shirt (in good condition, clean, preferable size small or medium). In just a few minutes, Recycling Committee volunteers will turn the T-shirt into a sturdy reusable bag. Give new purpose to those T-shirts you no longer wear, but want to keep around. The Committee will have a selection of T-shirt bags available for attendees who don’t bring their own shirt. The Committee will also provide information and answers questions about the new ordinance, which takes effect beginning July 1, 2018.

The Recycling Committee will also be providing information on recycling programs in the city and options for recycling items that aren’t eligible for curbside collection. MRC will also have new information on a growing number of options for curbside food waste collection here in Melrose. Several vendors have emerged in recent months to offer such services, and MRC has done some recent research into their respective offerings.

The Healthy Melrose Family Wellness & Fitness Fair will take place on Saturday, May 12, from 10:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.at the Melrose Athletic Complex (the Melrose High School football field, next to the Melrose Middle School). To learn more about the activity schedule for the event, please visit http://www.healthymelrose.org.

For further information on the Melrose Recycling Committee and its programs and activities, contact George Stubbs at 781-775-5058.

Plastics in the Ocean: Focus on the Problem Sharpens

by George Stubbs

It seems that, every day, we hear more news about how the improper disposal of plastic waste is resulting in the rapid accumulation of enormous amounts of the waste on beaches and in the oceans and posing a significant health burden to marine life. A new article–not from a non-governmental organization (NGO), but from the American Chemical Society’s house organ, Chemical & Engineering News–provides some staggering new numbers on the state of ocean pollution by plastic and other wastes. It also reviews some of the steps that the chemical industry, governments, and others are taking to stem the tide of plastic waste entering our oceans.

The article reports that about 500,000 volunteers for the Ocean Conservancy‘s  2017 International Coastal Cleanup initiative picked up a staggering array of items at several locations around the world. These items included the following: 1,578,834 plastic beverage bottles; 822,227 plastic bottle caps; 520,900 plastic grocery bags; 368,665 other plastic bags; 762,353 food wrappers; 419,380 plastic lids; 409,487 plastic straws; and more. (The most numerous class of waste was 1,863,868 cigarette butts, which present toxic problems of their own.)

The article identifies the leading sources of plastics in the ocean as countries in Southeast Asia: China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. The article makes it less clear that the plastics entering the ocean from these nations is not entirely the result of generation by the people of those nations, but also by people from the developed world, which sends much of its waste to developing nations, where items thought to be valuable are extracted while the rest is dumped.

Admittedly, the waste management regimes of these countries are abysmal–certainly compared with those of the United States and Europe–and significant improvements are in order. The article reports that the plastics industry, recognizing that it has a problem, has pledged to work with governments and NGOs to develop improved methods for collecting, sorting, and recycling plastic waste.

It’s fair to say that the plastics industry wants to help in this manner because it wants to maintain our addiction to plastic products. The need to address the problem at the source, including by reducing our consumption of items like plastic grocery bags, is still critical.

But let’s at least give credit where credit is due. Dow Chemical, for example, has been sponsoring beach cleanups for years and now realizes that effort will not be enough, according to the article. “About seven years ago, Dow helped form the Trash Free Seas Alliance with Ocean Conservancy and other big corporate sponsors like Coca-Cola. More recently, the company pledged $2.8 million toward efforts to fight marine debris,” the article says.

“Dow is sponsoring a program to build roads in Indonesia and India made in part with flexible packaging that is otherwise difficult to recycle,” the article continues. “Engineers recently blended 3.5 metric tons of plastics into a 1.8-km road laid in West Java, Indonesia. Such roads sequester plastic that might otherwise be discarded and may last twice as long as a conventional road.”

As much as we may need to reduce our use of plastics, it is this kind of innovation and capital that will be needed to address the existing problem.

Governments are starting to turn their attention to the issue. On April 15, the British government announced that it will dedicate £61.4 million to establish the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance, an initiative aimed at researching the problem of marine plastics from a social, economic, and scientific perspective. Earlier this year, the European Union announced a strategy to modernize plastics production and collection and to evaluate potential economic instruments to reduce plastics use, with an initial investment of €350 million.

Another recent article illustrates just what ocean waste is doing to marine life. On Thursday, April 11, the Washington Post published a story about a dead sperm whale found on the coast of Spain with 64 tons of trash in its digestive system.

A necropsy revealed that the 33-foot whale has “trash bags, polypropylene sacks, ropes, net segments and a drum, among other things, in its stomach and intestines,” according to the Post.  The cause of death, it was determined, was inflammation of the abdominal lining.

The article went on to say that at least 30 sperm whales have been found washed up on European beaches in recent years with significant amounts of trash in their digestive systems.


Waste management’s recycling challenge

A recent post from the “media room” of Waste Management, the largest waste services company in North America, provides a good summary of one of the principal challenges facing companies and organizations that provide recycling services–contamination of the product. This is a challenge that we all play a part in, as contamination of the recyclables stock begins at the collection point. That is, with what we put on the curb.

Two questions confront the citizen who wants to do the right thing and help us make the transition to a circular economy, and away from the linear “take, make, use, lose” economy. First, what can we recycle? Second, how do we recycle it?

Brent Bell, Waste Management’s vice president of recycling operations, suggests in the post that answering the first question can be something of a moving target. “Simply put, many of the items we all want to recycle are getting hard to market economically,” he says. “This impacts our business, the environment and the recycling industry as a whole.”

One culprit–and we hesitate to use that word–is the advent of single-stream recycling in the early 2000s. Single-stream collection made recycling for individual households far more convenient than before and inspired many more households to participate in recycling.

Another part of the equation, however, is the growing complexity of products and their packaging. For example, certain types of plastic packaging–the bain of our hyper-consumer society–consist of multiple different kinds of new plastic compounds, making it hard to reprocess them.

The result, says Mr. Bell, is two-fold for the recycling industry–higher contamination of the recycled goods, and following that, lower quality in the goods that are made from the recyclables and returned to market.

“Today, the average contamination rate among communities and businesses sits at around 25%,” writes Bell. “That means that roughly 1 in 4 items placed in a recycling container is actually not recyclable through curbside programs, and this creates enormous problems for the recycling economy.

“[C]ontamination significantly increases the cost to process recyclables,” he continues. “Add this to the fact that commodity prices for recyclables has fallen significantly and the financial sustainability of recycling is at risk. To put another way, not only are plastics lighter, and packaging more complex, recyclables derived from those items are being sold for less and at a higher cost to process.”

With the cost problem comes the quality problem. “Recycling contamination has a direct impact in the quality of recyclables entering the commodity markets,” Mr. Bell explains. “For example, when foods or liquids are placed in a recycling container they will ultimately saturate tons and tons of otherwise good paper and cardboard that they come into contact with. When paper and cardboard loses its quality, it also loses its ability to be recycled. It becomes trash.”

The solution? The waste management industry realizes that it has work to do, in expanding markets for recyclables and developing better sorting technologies. But we as citizens–whether running our households or managing our businesses–have a role to play too, most significantly in keeping food, liquids, and plastic bags out of the recycling bins.

Waste Management also acknowledges its role in helping to educate the public about proper recycling practices. The community has a parallel role, and that’s why we–the members of the Melrose Recycling Committee–are here. If you have a question, don’t hesitate to ask. Contact us here.