• The Pink Elephant Lady

Wishcycling, Contamination, and Plastic Bag Recycling

We know that we need to do a better job of reducing contamination in our curbside bins. We know we need to replace 'wishcycling' with 'know before you throw'. But recycling rules can be confusing. Why?

The two main reasons for the confusion that surrounds recycling are that most consumer product packaging is not designed to be recycled in the first place, and municipal recycling capabilities vary wildly from place to place. Let's dive a little deeper into those realities.

Product and Packaging Manufacturers Don't Design Packaging with Recyclability as a Priority

Recyclability is not a priority in designing consumer product packaging. Here's what IS a priority:

  • Increasing shelf life and reducing inventory loss by protecting the contents of the package from spoilage. As a bonus, this reduces food waste.

  • Reducing the cost of shipping thousands of units of product with trucks, trains, planes, and cargo ships by 'lightweighting' - a plastic pouch is far lighter than a glass bottle. The pouch is not recyclable, but the glass bottle is. A bonus is that lighter loads require less fuel and energy to ship.

  • The package communicates information to the consumer. Law requires that allergen warnings, ingredients, and nutrition information be included on packaging. 'Packaging free' would make that very difficult. Packaging also helps sell the product on the shelf and distinguishes a product from competing products. Sometimes a premium-priced product differs only in its packaging and branding from a lower priced product with similar (or even identical) ingredients.

  • Many types of consumer product packaging are worthless for recycling because it's cheaper to make a new container than recycle an old one. And when that's the case, there's no demand for the material. And when there's no demand for a material, it's getting landfilled. Recycling is about economics. When there's no legislation requiring the use of a certain percentage of recycled materials, manufacturers aren't going to do it if it's going to cost them more money. Period.

  • The little triangle with the arrows just tells us what type of plastic something is. The Resin Identification Code (RIC) system was created by and for the plastics industry in 1988. Each number signifies a different category of plastics; this system was designed to tell recycling facilities what type of resin can be found in any given object. They were never a guarantee that the item in question would be recycled. For example, #7 is a catch-all category that can be used for a container that has multiple types of plastic fused together, bioplastics, and other things that can't go in your curbside bin. And #6 is 'styrofoam', which many cities have either banned or cannot accept.

Recycling Looks Different in Different Places

Recycling capabilities vary wildly from place to place. The bottom line is that cities with less money (or less political will) will not have state-of-the-art equipment and thus will be limited as to what they can accept. A facility without a plastic bag baler cannot accept plastic bags, while a wealthier community that has a facility with the latest and greatest optical sorting equipment will be able to accept plastic bags and paper cups curbside. And many of the country's communities fall somewhere in the middle. The differences between communities contributes to recycling confusion. We are told to never put plastic bags in curbside bins - unless, of course, you live in Kent County! (The Kent County Recycling & Education Center has state-of-the-art equipment and museum-style exhibits that explain the recycling process. If you're in the recycling industry, the beauty of this just makes you get all misty-eyed!

Contamination and Wishcycling

The result of confusion is recycling contamination and 'wishcycling'. What is recycling contamination? Dirty bottles, wet cardboard, hangers, unrecyclable blister packs, and other non-recyclable materials ending up in curbside bins. People post videos and pictures on social media of Waste Management, Advanced, and GFL trucks dumping recycling truck loads into landfills and the angry caption reads "Recycling is useless and dead and broken! Scammers! They tell us they're recycling stuff but they just throw it out!" The reality might be that your neighbors have tossed so many diapers, garden hoses, Christmas lights, and sticky unrinsed peanut butter jars in their bins that the entire load was too contaminated to be salvaged. We are ALL to blame for recycling's problems.

Wishcycling makes it worse!

What is 'wishcycling'? That's when we toss materials we're not sure about into our recycle bins in the hopes that someone will figure it out for us. We feel guilty about creating so much trash. So, to make ourselves feel a bit better, we toss questionable materials into our bins with the idea that 'Well, they'll sort it out. They'll pick out what's recyclable and find a place for all of these things to go." The problem? Picking contaminants out of a load of recycling is INCREDIBLY time-consuming, tedious, and labor-intensive - and that's what most facilities would need to do, as very few have super advanced equipment that can sort through all the rubbish. Labor-intensive and time-consuming translates to EXPENSIVE. But communities and residents also don't want to pay more for recycling - they want it to be as close to free as possible. It just doesn't add up.

Finally, let's take a deep dive into plastic bag/film recycling. For our recycling program, this is by far the largest stream we receive, and it's also the most contaminated. Here are the most common contaminants we see (if you're a member of our Recycling Club or Zero Waste Champion Club, PLEASE don't include these in your drop-off!). Note: These rules apply to virtually ALL plastic bag drop-off programs, not just ours.


THINGS THAT ARE NOT ACCEPTED IN PLASTIC BAG/FILM DROP-OFF

  • Pretty much everything from Trader Joe's

For some reason, TJ's has garnered a reputation of being organic, healthy, and crunchy, and thus there's this assumption that their packaging is recyclable. In reality, the vast majority of food sold at TJ's is conventional, in trash packaging, and may or may not be 'healthy'. Whoever does their branding and marketing is ingenious - TJ's gets all the cred with none of the expense and extended producer responsibility. All of the bags that hold the dried fruit, nuts, frozen food, salad bags, beverage powders, etc. from TJ's are NOT RECYCLABLE.

In their defense, that's no different than any other grocery chain. Except for Kroger, who recycles ALL of their store brand packaging!

ALL of this Trader Joe's packaging is landfill fodder.
As a private brand, the California-based Trader Joe’s orders most of its products from third-party manufacturers (including giants like PepsiCo. ConAgra, and Snyder’s-Lance), which agree to sell some of their items under the Trader Joe’s label. Many of these brands sell the same or similar products under their own names for a higher price. The catch is that Trader Joe’s and its suppliers all but swear to keep the agreement secret. Suppliers aren’t allowed to say they supply Trader Joe’s products, and Trader Joe’s never willingly talks about who their suppliers are.
On top of that, Trader Joe’s executives and owners are notoriously tight-lipped about operations and hardly speak to the press about the business. Requests for details, especially about manufacturers, are generally declined. Source: Eater.com, https://www.eater.com/2017/8/9/16099028/trader-joes-products
  • Frozen food bags and salad bags

Accepted plastic film is #2 and #4. And that's all. All other types of plastic bags are not accepted. Frozen food and salad bags are a different type of plastic.


  • Pretty much every plastic pouch food packaging that you're dropping off.

There are very, very few brands that have made a commitment to ensure their packaging doesn't get landfilled or burned. So, not only are all the flexible pouches from Trader Joe's not recyclable, neither are anyone else's. If a brand is mentioned on our list, we take it. If not, we don't. If it would make it easier for everyone, just DON'T include ANY stand-up flexible pouches in recycling drop-off. There are so few brands that are accepted that it's probably a safer bet to just toss these bags, including Bob's Red Mill, Whole Foods 365, and all the other 'crunchy' brands sold at Whole Foods. ALL garbage packaging.

None of these are recyclable.
  • Lego bags

These are plastic #5. We don't take them. Lego is changing their bags - stay tuned for more information. But the ones pictured here are trash. Even though #5 is recyclable when it's a bottle, cap, or jar, this is not because it's a bag.

These bags are trash.
  • Fish packaging/other stinky or dirty things

Plastic film is porous. No matter how much you've washed off film that contained fish, it still stinks. Imagine a bag of plastic bags, tied tightly, with fish packaging in it that has been sitting in a hot garage for a few weeks before someone drops it off. Yeah. Enough said! Also, we cannot clean or rinse packaging that has been dropped off. Dirty or stinky items will be thrown out.

Don't bring plastic that has held fish!
  • Paper shipping envelopes with bubble wrap liner

Most shipping envelopes these days are either 100% plastic (like Amazon and US Postal Service padded envelopes) or 100% paper (the curbside compostable ones that are stuffed with either paper or padded with a paper-grade cellulose glue), but there are still some out there that are brown/golden manila paper with plastic bubble wrap on the inside. We don't take those. We DO take 100% plastic ones - the 100% paper ones can go in your curbside bin.


  • Chip/Pretzel bags that aren't foil

Most chip bags are foil (think BetterMade bags, Fritos, etc.). Some tortilla chips, popcorn, and pretzels are packaged in non-foil, crinkly transparent plastic. We don't take those. Note: We do take foil chip bags in our recycling program, but they are not plastic film. Don't put transparent chip/pretzel bags in plastic film drop off programs.

All of these bags are trash.
  • Pretty much all pet food/pet treat bags Bags

Only a couple pet food brands have committed to accepting their packaging for recycling. See our 'List of Accepted Items' to find out which ones. The rest all have garbage packaging. We get a lot of unrecyclable, unaccepted pet food packaging in our program. If the brand is not listed, we don't take it.

These bags are all trash.
  • Most of what Amazon and other grocery delivery services use to keep your grocery delivery cool

Foil bubble insulation bags are NOT recyclable - they're #7 ('other', which translates to 'hahahaha nowhere can actually recycle that'). Its a mix of metalized polyester and low-density polyethylene (LDPE #4) on the outside, which is laminated and stuck to LDPE bubbles on the inside. (Jeff Bezos claims Amazon's grocery delivery service is actually better for the planet than traditional grocery shopping. But that's a whole 'nother discussion that I'll save for another time!)

The dry ice bag plastic and gel pack plastic is also not recyclable because they're mixed plastics fused together. These items can be reused, however.

To learn more about Amazon's grocery delivery packaging, click here: https://www.amazon.com/amsc/packagelist/fresh

WHAT IS ACCEPTED IN PLASTIC FILM DROP OFF?

It's often better to just stick to this list instead of trying to include the maximum amount of plastic film possible. Sticking to a list of what IS accepted instead of trying to memorize everything that ISN'T reduces contamination and wishcycling.

  • Bread bags: ALL of them

  • Grocery bags: ALL of them

  • Ice bags

  • Dry cleaning bags

  • Produce bags from the grocery store

  • The bags that hold cereal

  • Plastic that surrounds multipacks

  • Bubble wrap

  • 100% plastic shipping envelopes

  • Plastic film from shipping - think mattresses and other large items

  • Plastic bags and film that are stamped with #2 or #4, or a symbol that says 'Plastic Bag Drop Off'

Exceptions

Ah. There are ALWAYS exceptions to confuse us even more. Luckily, there's just a couple.

  • No matter what type of material the packaging is, if it's a Kroger brand, we accept it. You can take your Kroger items back to the store, or you can bring them to us. We've heard folks say "Why do you charge for this recycling program? I can drop this off myself for free." Yes, you sure can. You can also cut your own hair and grow your own wheat to make your own bread. But if you don't want to or can't do those things yourself, you can pay someone to do it. And that's the case with our recycling program. We collect many material streams from many different people, which cuts down on the carbon footprint of the entire process. PLUS our program helps earn money for Detroit's Green Living Science.


  • No matter what the material is, if it's dirty or smelly, we can't take it.

  • If it's a type of material on this list we just gave you of what we CAN'T take, but the brand is on our list of accepted brands, we can take it. For example, flexible pouches are generally not accepted, but if they're Burt's Bees, Earthborn Pet Food, or Arbonne, we take them. Check the list!

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