What happens to the plastic bags we recycle at grocery stores?
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Our modern lives are awash in plastic wrap. Beyond carry-out bags, the film protects our food, packaging, toilet paper, dry cleaning, newspapers, and even our boats.
The good news is that this material is recyclable. But it mostly ends up in the trash. Only 3.9% of plastic bags were recycled in Minnesota last year, largely because they weren’t accepted by curbside recycling programs.
The film requires special treatment because it wraps around the spinning machines that sort the recycled waste, which must be stopped regularly to dispose of it. Many diligent home recyclers instead keep a “bag of bags” until they have accumulated enough to get to a drop-off location – usually a grocery store.
Readers contacted Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune reader-fueled reporting project, seeking more information on how this process works. Bonnie Creason noticed that some local stores stopped accepting plastic wraps during the pandemic, for example.
Dave York wanted to know if the film he brings to the store is actually recycled and if grocery stores are carrying an unfair burden for this society-wide problem.
“I was wondering if they were reimbursed somehow,” York said.
What’s going on at the store?
The recycling of plastic films is indeed mysterious. Some counties accept it at drop-off sites, but typically its recycling journey begins at private companies, listed on bagandfilmrecycling.org.
The bags must be clean. Stretch wrap is generally recyclable, including bubble wrap and Ziploc type bags (#2 or #4 polyethylene plastics).
Grocery stores typically combine the recycled bags with the pallet wrap they receive and send the material back to the fulfillment center through their wholesaler, said Jamie Pfuhl, president of the Minnesota Grocers Association. The store usually bears the service charge without any refund.
“There’s a human element to this plastic recycling. A lot of people put their trash there,” Pfuhl said. “And there’s an employee who’s responsible for going through it and sorting it out.”
That’s partly why some stores stopped taking bags at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when it was still unclear how the virus was spreading.
About 175 companies, including smaller cooperative stores, donate their film to Vadnais Heights-based Merrick Inc. Merrick employs adults with disabilities to pick up the films throughout the metro area and remove non-recyclable materials before shipping them for recycling.
Pfuhl said most mainstream grocers offer film recycling services, though sometimes customers don’t know where to find them.
“I don’t know…we do the best job as an advertising industry,” Pfuhl said, adding that customers should feel free to ask customer service or store managers.
Where are you going?
Most film collected from stores in Minnesota is sent to Trex, a Virginia-based company that processes it into composite decking boards, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
“Usually if it’s recycled, it leaves our area and travels long enough distances to be recycled,” said JoAnne Berkenkamp, chief executive of MBOLD, a coalition of Minnesota companies such as General Mills and other entities focused on solving problems related to food and agriculture.
That might be about to change, though.
MBOLD members have invested in a major new plastic film recycling facility set to open this summer at Rogers, operated by South Africa-based recycling company Myplas. The state Department of Jobs and Economic Development also invested $1.4 million in grants and loans into the project during the tenure of then-commissioner Steve Grove, who is now the publisher. from the Star Tribune.
“It’s going to be a very sophisticated facility that has the ability to bring food-grade films and turn them into food-grade resin,” Berkenkamp said. “Which is sort of the holy grail, really, in this space.”
Americans use about 15 billion pounds of flexible film each year, including shopping bags, boat wraps, pallet wraps, hay bale wraps and food wraps, Berkenkamp said. About two-thirds of that ends up in residences, with the rest going to commercial locations.
The Rogers plant will eventually be able to process 90 million pounds of polyethylene per year, most of which is plastic film. It will granulate the films and send this material to Charter Next Generation’s facilities in Wisconsin to be made into new films.
“I would say this is probably the best public-private partnership we’ve ever worked in in my career,” said Wayne Gjerde, who helps develop recycling markets at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Gjerde’s tenure at the agency began in the mid-1990s.
Minnesota’s recycling rate — the share of state waste recycled — has hovered between 42% and 45% in recent years. The national rate is 32%.
The Twin Cities metropolitan area’s rate was 45% in 2021, well below the state’s goal of reaching 75% in the metro by 2030.
Gjerde said the bin is always full of items that could be recycled in curbside bins. Apart from this, however, the expansion of food waste and plastic film collection are key areas of opportunity.
“In terms of film collection, we need to improve the collection system,” Gjerde said.
If you would like to submit a Curious Minnesota question, fill out the form below:
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The Twin Cities district recycles more than ever. Why has landfill not decreased?
Is Minnesota Recycled Trash Really Reused?
What happens to the hazardous waste that Minnesotans bring to the drop-off facilities?
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