Surfrider Maine’s RAP Blog

This site will help to keep everyone up to date on the happenings of Surfrider Maine’s Rise Above Plastic work. Please check back often.


What About Recycling Plastic Bags?

Recycling rates for plastic bags are extremely low, probably 5% or less mostly because the economics of recycling plastic bags are so bad. The process of sorting, the contamination of inks and the overall low quality of the plastic used in plastics bags means recyclers would rather focus on recycling more viable materials such as soda and milk bottles that can be recycled more efficiently.

As an example, Jared Blumenfeld, director of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment says it costs his city $4,000 to process and recycle 1 ton of plastic bags, which can then be sold on the commodities market for about $32.

The Berkeley (CA) Plastics Task Force claim plastic recycling programs give people a false assurance concerning the benefits of recycling. Finding a market for used plastic is challenging, in part because manufacturers of virgin plastic resist using recycled content in their packaging products because virgin resin is less expensive.

Furthermore, many bags collected for recycling never get recycled. A growing trend is to ship them to countries like India and China which are rapidly becoming the dumping grounds for the Western world’s recyclables. Rather than being recycled they are cheaply incinerated under more lax environmental laws.

Missy Labbe, Program Development Manager for EcoMaine indicated this may well be what happens to plastic bags collected by them from their member communities (which include Portland). “They are sold to a broker and shipped over seas…. the broker will not disclose where they are shipped or how they are disposed of.”

Even if recycling rates of plastic bags were to increase dramatically, it would not solve other problems, such as the use of non-renewable resources and toxic chemicals in their original production, or the billions of bags that wind up in our environment each year that photo degrade into toxic bits.

A Few Facts About Plastics

  • The amount of plastic produced from 2000 – 2010 exceeds the amount produced during the entire last century.[1]
  • Plastic is the most common type of marine litter worldwide.[2]
  • An estimated 100,000 marine mammals and up to 1 million sea birds die every year after ingesting or being tangled in plastic marine litter.[3] [4] [5]
  • Up to 80% of the plastic in our oceans comes from land-based sources.[6] [7] [8]
  • Plastics comprise up to 90% of floating marine debris.[9]
  • In 2010 about 690,000 tons of waste HDPE plastic “bags, sacks and wraps” were generated in the United States, but only 4.3% of this total was recycled.[10]
  • Plastics do not biodegrade, but instead break down into small particles that persist in the ocean, absorb toxins, and enter our food chain through fish, sea birds and other marine life.[11]
  • Plastic bags are problematic in the litter stream because they float easily in the air and water, traveling long distances and never fully breaking down in water.
  • Cleanup of plastic bags is costly. California spends $25 million annually to landfill discarded plastic bags, and public agencies spend more than $300 million annually in litter cleanup.[12]
  • It is estimated that Americans go through about 100 billion plastic bags a year, or 360 bags per year for every man, woman and child in the country.[13]
  • Those 100 billion plastic bags, if tied together, would reach around the Earth’s equator 776 times![14]
  • Recent studies estimate that fish off the West Coast ingest over 12,000 tons of plastic a year.[15] [16]
  • In 2009 the UN called for a complete ban on all plastic bags. “Some of the litter, like thin film single use plastic bags which choke marine life, should be banned or phased-out rapidly everywhere-there is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere.” — Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director.

1. Thompson, R.C. “Plastics, the environment and human health: current consensus and future trends.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences. 364.1526 (2009):2153-2166.
2. Derraik, J.G.B. “The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: a review.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 44. (2002): 843.
Gregory, M.R., Ryan, P.G. “Pelagic plastics and other seaborne persistent synthetic debris: a review of Southern Hemisphere perspectives.” Marine Debris – Sources, Impacts and Solutions. Ed. J.M. Coe, D.B. Rogers. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1997, pp. 4, 9-66.
3. United Nations. Marine Litter: Trash that Kills. , Web. 14 Feb 2011., pp. 10.
4. Wallace, N. “Debris Entanglement in the Marine Environment: A Review.” Proceedings of the Workshop on the Fate and Impact of Marine Debris. Eds. R.S. Shomura, H.O. Yoshida. U.S. Department of Commerce: NOAA Technical Memorandum. NMFS, NOAA-TM-NMFS-SWFC-5, pp. 259-277.
6. California Ocean Protection Council. An Implementation Strategy for the California Ocean Protection Council Resolution to Reduce and Prevent Ocean Litter. 2008. 3.
7. “Ships Set Sail to Examine the Vast Patch of PLastic in the Pacific Ocean.” 80beats. Discover, 08/03/2009. Web.
8. “Marine Debris.” California Coastal Cleanup Day, Web.
9. United Nations. Marine Litter: An Analytical Overview. , Web. 14 Feb 2011.
10. United States Environmental Protection Agency, December 2011. Web. 23 Feb 2012.
11. Williams, Caroline. “Battle of the Bag.” New Scientist. (2004): Print.
12. Californians Against Waste. “The Problem of Plastic Bags.”
13. Royte, Elizabeth. Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash. Little, Brown and Company, 2005.
14. U.S. International Trade Commission. Polyethylene Retail Carrier Bags from Indonesia, Taiwan, and Vietman. Publication 4080. May 2009, pg. IV-7. *Calculation is based on the following: 2008 bag consumption, according to U.S. International Trade Commission = 102,105,637,000. Earth’s Circumference = 131,480,184 feet, Average bag length = 1ft.
15. Davison P, Asch RG (2011) Plastic ingestion by mesopelagic fishes in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 432:173-180