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Culture > News

Stop Recycling Plastic Bags. Right Now.

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Utah chapter.

Recycling programs all around the country are asking community members to add another resolution to their list this year: stop recycling plastic bags. Yes, you read that correctly. Seemingly a staple to most recycling programs, many communities are no longer accepting plastic bags from recycling bins.

In Salt Lake City, this ordinance has been accepted and began its “soft launch” a few weeks ago. Plastic bags have been removed from the list of recyclable items allowed in residential blue bins. The issue with plastic bags is that they are not so easily recycled as many believed when kickstarting local recycling campaigns. Due to the mass quantity of plastic bags being received by centers and their flimsy nature, these bags become a burden rather than a reward for recycling efforts. 

According to Business Insider, “Workers at the recycling station are sorting through tonnes of material an hour and don’t have time to open bags to find out what’s inside. Conveyor belts feed the recycling into rotating tunnels, onto spinning wheels and past magnets and eddy currents to separate the plastic, glass, paper, aluminum and steel cans. Plastic bags cannot be sorted from other materials by existing machinery. Instead, they get caught in the conveyor belts and jam spinning wheels”.

Plastic bags have jammed up conveyor belts and spinning wheels slowing the sorting and production of recycled materials. Many facilities have to close for several hours each day just to remove the plastic bags from the sorting wheels with heavy duty equipment, effectively shutting down the entire plant and wasting hours of potential labor. 

As seen in a now viral video from the city of Chicago, the day to day process of the recycling facility is brought to a halt several times each day from “the beginning of the shift, in the middle of the shift, and at the end of the shift”. This wastes not only the materials themselves, but also the taxpayer money that goes into the recycling facility.

What’s the fix? Stop placing recyclables in extra Smith’s bags and stray away from throwing that neon Forever 21 bag in your blue bin. Instead donate them to local causes that are turning the recycling process into a community effort such as Bags to Beds

Bags to Beds is a local program started by Kaitlin McLean, a fourth year Physics and Psychology student at the University of Utah. McLean first thought of the project after hearing about the numbers of homeless Utahns who weren’t making it through the winter due to a myriad of problems but especially a lack of heat and insulation as homeless individuals slept on concrete sidewalks. She had seen a Facebook video from her master crocheter of a mom captioned, “maybe this will get you to crochet” where people were turning plastic bags into yarn to be used for plastic mats or “beds” for homeless individuals. 

McLean, impassioned by the idea of sustainable community action, mentioned the project to an advisor at the Bennion Center who helped her launch the program in September. The program’s mission is to “decrease waste while increasing awareness and resources for individuals experiencing homelessness, especially in the winter months”. After starting the program and meeting with different groups on campus, McLean could tell that, “Bags to Beds had momentum and that it could make a big impact”.

In the months since the launch, McLean with Bags to Beds has helped make four full size (6ft by 32 inch) sleeping pads as well as twelve more in development. The goal is to have 100 complete by this Thanksgiving. In order to accomplish this goal, the program will need approximately 40,000 plastic grocery bags. The program asks people to donate their bags to the Bags to Beds locations on campus. “We have drop off locations at the Bennion Center, the ASUU office, in the Physics building, in the Engineering Dean’s office, in the Park Building, and soon they’ll be in each of the dorms through the help of HRE”, McLean states. 

If people are interested in crocheting or learning about the process, McLean suggests stopping by a plarn party to make a difference while having fun at the same time. “Every few weeks or so we have what we affectionately call a “plarn party” or a plastic yarn party where we make some plastic yarn and people who already have a mat going will just crochet. And that’s at the Bennion Center usually, but we’ve had those with all sorts of groups. This week we’re having it with the Enviro Club. And then in the Bennion Center we have the service corner where you can stop in and if you need an hour of service, you can always stop by and work on a mat or learn how to make a mat by any of the staff!” 

As mentioned by McLean, a Plarn Party is being hosted this Thursday at 6pm at Building 73 for all those who are interested in sustainable service. The hopes of these parties to show people the process and get them started, and then the crocheting project can be donated for service hours once finished. Each bed takes approximately 30 hours to complete, but the process is a relaxing and beneficial stress reliever, says McLean.

The path towards a more sustainable future is a long and winding road. At each fork we must approach our current practices and ask, “Can I be doing better?” In this moment, we need to reflect that our desire to easily recycle plastic grocery bags is doing more harm than help. Many grocery stores that accept plastic bags including local Smith’s and Dans do just that. They accept the bags, but the bags don’t find their way to recycling centers as they cause so much strain on the facilities. By taking a strategic move towards sustainability, projects like Bags to Beds allow for a reliable and earnest method to make sure bags will truly have a “new future”. 

Small and repetitive actions such as dropping off bags at a donation bin or gradually not using plastic from stores can have a huge difference. McLean says to all those who wish to make a difference and see a more sustainable world, “sometimes little changes can make a big difference. We can cut down on tons and tons of plastic each year. I’m not someone who changes their entire life to be sustainable, but I’ve noticed that I bike around campus not because it’s sustainable but because it’s faster and now I hardly use my car. It’s a benefit that it happens to be sustainable. But I do think little changes can make a world of difference. I would encourage people to find something that isn’t necessarily disruptive since those are hard to maintain, but by cutting down on plastic bags and start picking up a reusable bag as you go shopping. Even the smallest things have an impact”. 

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Grace is a first year double major at the University of Utah studying Political Science and Health, Society and Policy. When she's not writing (or reading) articles about politics, philosophy of law, or societal developments, Grace enjoys decompressing by knitting hats for the Road Home and dancing her heart out to her "Female Power Bops" playlist on Spotify. 
Her Campus Utah Chapter Contributor