While we try to avoid plastic packaging in our sustainability journey, we can easily forget about the trash bags we use to put waste in our trash bins. Most homes use the ubiquitous plastic trash bag to store all of our leftovers before they are collected and taken away, out of sight, out of mind.
And whereas reusable alternatives to other single-use plastic bags have cropped up, the garbage bag remains one of those items we persist with. Are trash bags recyclable?
Yes - trash bags are recyclable, but how we use/dispose of them might make them difficult to recycle.
So how do we dispose of garbage bags? And how do we recycle garbage bags? This article aims to solve the mystery of recycling trash bags.
Before we get into the recyclability of garbage bags, let’s examine the different types of garbage bags. There are three primary types of trash bags- recycling, trash, and compost. We use recycling bags to pack recyclable plastic trash, and in many places, these bags are blue to differentiate them from the black trash bags.
A compostable trash bag is used with compostable waste like food waste, food scraps, paper, and other organic materials. To make these trash bags compostable, manufacturers use alternatives to oil-derived plastics, such as plant starch converted into bioplastics. You can throw them away with your compost trash, and microorganisms will break them down in the compost pile.
We are familiar with the plastic bags we use to keep trash in our trash bins. We popularly use black because it doesn’t expose the content of the trash bag to light which can cause it to degrade further and smell! However, trash bags have different colors, ranging from red to white to pink.
Also, not everyone uses conventional trash bags. Many reuse plastic grocery bags and other polyethylene bags as trash bags. In a way, it prolongs the use of polyethylene bags.
However, these recycled trash bags have missed the chance at a third life because waste companies don’t recycle trash bags. It stands a better chance of getting recycled if you dispose of it in a recycling bin, getting to live a second life.
The short answer is No.
Garbage bags are recyclable. However, recycling plants do not recycle them because of the difficulties surrounding them. Garbage bags, like any other plastic bag, contains polyethylene and other plastic composites. To reduce costs and resource depletion, they make most of these trash bags from recycled plastics, but they're thinned plastic fibers.
Inevitably the food waste items we throw into plastic garbage bags end up rotten, dirty, and smelly. Then the garbage company comes around to hurl these trash bags into the landfill alongside other trash. This is one of the reasons why it is advisable to use a separate trash bag as you recycle trash bag to avoid confusion.
The recycling bin only recycles clean plastic bags. Once it gets to the landfill's waste stream, recycling plants ignore plastic garbage bags, which are typically too dirty to recycle. They can overcome the thinness of the plastic fibers and recycle garbage bags. However, whatever the recycled end product is will be contaminated. And a contaminated product will cause a lot more harm to us and our environment.
The trash inside garbage bags ends up in the landfill. Then, they sort the waste stream into recycling bins. After the first sorting, recyclable plastic bags are separated and washed. They thoroughly clean the bags to get rid of dirt and germs, preventing the risk of contaminating the recycled materials produced. Finally, they add garbage bags to the recycling stream, creating recycled trash bags and other stuff.
The above process looks quite simple, right? However, it is not as simple as it seems. It requires a whole lot of work and effort. So, most recyclers would rather avoid plastic trash bags forming part of the recyclable materials they take in.
Now that we know we cannot recycle plastic bags, we should move forward by looking for a sustainable alternative. We produce tons of trash daily and cannot just dump it in the trash can without any form of protection. The purpose of a trash bag is to keep our kitchen, household, and industrial waste compact and away from us to prevent germs and the like from spreading. The alternative to plastic garbage bags is compostable bags. Compostable bags are a perfect kitchen trash bag.
Compostable bags are bags that can decay like other organic elements, benefitting the soil fauna and structure. Some examples of compostable bags are plant-based bags and paper bags. However, you must dispose of them in compost bins to avoid worse forms of environmental pollution. Compostable items need microbes, moisture, oxygen, heat, and time to decompose.
Without these five things, they would start releasing harmful greenhouse gases. So, make sure to dump your composite trash in a composting bin.
We are suffering from the impact of plastics on the planet. However, we often overlook how the trash bag we use contributes to environmental damage. Trash bags do not decompose readily when in landfills or dumped in the environment.
Plastic bags can take 100 years to decompose. Furthermore, decomposing a plastic bag leads to the production of a lot of microplastics. These microplastics enter our environment, causing high levels of planet pollution.
Here are some of the dangerous effects of using plastic bags as trash bags:
When we use trash bags made with plastic materials, we are creating more plastic pollution. To further understand the magnitude of the contribution of trash bags to water pollution, we’ll examine the amount of trash produced daily in the United Kingdom and worldwide.
In 2018, England produced 222.2 million tonnes of waste. The United Kingdom generated about 43.9 million tonnes of industrial and commercial waste4.
According to The World Bank, the world produced 2.24 billion tonnes of waste in 2020, or the equivalent of each person producing 0.79 kg of waste daily. Furthermore, The World Bank predicted that by 2050, we would generate up to 4 billion tonnes of waste1. From these numbers, you can calculate the quantity of trash bags used to hold waste, all adding to plastic waste in the world.
As these plastics slowly disintegrate in landfills and our natural environment, it enters our marine system. It is in freshwater, oceans, groundwater, etc. These bits of microplastics can harm aquatic life.
Microplastics enter the marine food web, and marine animals unknowingly ingest plastic-infused food. This causes aquatic animals to experience a reduction in their appetite, low energy levels, neurotoxicity, and a slow growth rate. They also develop internal injuries, lacerations, and infections, putting some aquatic animals at risk of extinction.
We established in previous paragraphs that trash bags contribute to environmental pollution. Microplastics enter the water we drink and the foods we eat. By ingesting plastic-infused content, we are at risk of developing reproductive, neurological, and immune system disorders.
Another thing that makes ingesting and inhaling plastics dangerous is contamination. While these bits of plastics were in the environment, toxic germs and contaminants grew on their surfaces. These contaminants also cause further health problems for us when ingested.
Trash bags have immediate and direct contact with the terrestrial environment. When it breaks down in landfills and soils, it enters the soil and starts disrupting the symbiotic microbiota in the soil fauna gut. Plastics' components change the soil structure and texture, damaging the health of soil fauna like earthworms and nematodes.
Plastic pollution is more dangerous in the terrestrial environment because it's the main point of contact for almost everything. The food chain and water ecosystem connect to the terrestrial environment. We, humans and animals, interact with all of them. It is unavoidable.
Trash bags are recycled plastic products, meaning production creates a carbon footprint. The production and recycling of plastic bags contribute to the rise of global warming. Some materials, like trash bags, don’t end up recycled. So, trash companies incinerate them.
Incineration produces emissions that slowly deplete the atmosphere, causing severe climate change like different parts of the world are experiencing now. Researchers predicted plastic incineration greenhouse gas emissions could reach 2.8 billion tonnes by 20502.
Biodegradable objects are objects that break down into small pieces over a long time. Biodegradable objects come from plant fibers and cellulose, making it possible for them to decompose into biomass, carbon dioxide, and water.
Some brands now manufacture biodegrading garbage bags; however, decomposing requires time and methane gas. To decompose a biodegradable garbage bag, you must send it to a landfill where they will apply methane gas.
People use compostable and biodegradable interchangeably, but they do not mean the same thing. Yes, you can break a garbage bag into small pieces. However, it doesn’t mean it is beneficial to the environment. Most biodegradable plastic garbage bags are harmful to the environment, unlike biodegradable trash bags made from cellulose and natural fibers.
The biodegradable bags you use for your trash bin have different levels of decomposition. A compostable bag decomposes within a year, while a biodegradable plastic garbage bag takes the same period to decompose as plastics.
Recycling a biodegradable garbage bag releases methane gas into the atmosphere. Methane gas is one of the most potent greenhouse gasses humans produce. Recycling a large quantity of these garbage bags tends to cause more harm than good as it releases large quantities of methane gas into the atmosphere.
Human interaction with methane gas is quite dangerous. We can experience dizzy spells, fainting, intense fatigue, and rapid heart rate. Also, we can suffer memory loss, impaired vision, convulsions, and possibly death.
Furthermore, methane gas is the second leading cause of global warming after carbon dioxide. It traps heat in the atmosphere, warming up the climate system. Researchers believe that methane gas may increase the levels of global warming in the future3.
Trash bags also add to microplastic pollution. So, we should organize our trash can output to dispose of waste effectively. For starters, have a separate trash bin and recycle bin. Then get a plant-based or paper trash bag for your trash cans. However, be sure to separate recyclable waste from biodegradable waste. Let's make a conscious effort to reduce our contribution to environmental pollution and climate change.
|Kaza, Silpa; Yao, Lisa C.; Bhada-Tata, Perinaz; Van Woerden, Frank. 2018. What a Waste 2.0 : A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050. Urban Development;. Washington, DC: World Bank. © World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/30317 License: CC BY 3.0 IGO|
|Plastic & Climate - The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet. Lisa Anne Hamilton and Steven Feit et al. Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL)|
Fletcher, S. E. M., & Schaefer, H. (2019). Rising methane: A new climate challenge. Science, 364(6444), 932-933.
Official Statistics. UK statistics on waste, Updated 11 May 2022. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.