Setting the bag limit on recycling

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Plastic bags litter the ground along highways. Blown by the wind, they get tangled up in fence rows and stuck in the underbrush. When they're not littering the ground, they're mostly being dumped in Cape Girardeau's trash and ultimately end up in a regional landfill.

The city -- which recycles newspapers, junk mail and other types of paper, cardboard, plastic bottles, and aluminum, tin and steel cans -- says there is no market for plastic bags.

The city encourages residents to put their soda cans, milk jugs and other recyclable materials in plastic bags. That makes it easier for city crews who pick up the items residents place by the curbs, said Pam Sander, administrative officer for the city's public works department.

At the city's recycling center at 120 N. Broadview St., the plastic bags get dumped in the trash. "We tear open the bags and throw them away," said Mike Tripp, the city's solid waste coordinator. On the one hand, residents who put their recyclables in grocery and other plastic bags make curbside recycling more convenient for city crews. But it also adds to the trash that the city transfers to a Dexter, Mo., area landfill.

"It's a Catch-22," said Jack Yarbrough, who runs the recycling center.

City officials say there's no market for plastic bags because they can't find a recycling firm that will haul off the bags at no cost to the city.

Sander said public works has started setting aside some plastic grocery bags which the parks and recreation department plans to make available in two special containers to be set up at Riverfront Park within the next few weeks for pet owners to pick up their dogs' excrement.

Dan Muser, parks director, said the bag service may be expanded to other parks if it's successful.

But the program won't begin to use the thousands of plastic bags that come through the recycling center every week and eventually end up being buried in a landfill, public works officials said.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, the city received $28,419 for 1,611 tons of recyclable trash. Newspapers and cardboard accounted for most of the recyclables. Plastic containers accounted for only about 5 percent of the recycled trash, or less than 92 tons.

The city sells its metal cans to a local firm, Sides Steel Supply & Metal Recycling Co.

Smurfit-Stone Recycling, a St. Louis company, currently hauls off plastic containers, newsprint, cardboard and other paper and pays the city for those materials. The company sells the baled items to manufacturers who ultimately recycle the materials.

"It has to be profitable to get it to market," said Don Hughes, general manager for the St. Louis company.

So far, it's not worth the trucking costs to haul plastic bags to the St. Louis plant, he said.

The company is looking for 20-ton loads. A tractor-trailer of loose plastic bags would not weight even 5,000 pounds, a fraction of a 20-ton load, Hughes said.

Still, he is optimistic that recycling plastic bags will become profitable in the future.

National markets

Nationally, there already are markets for recycling plastic bags, said Rob Krebs, a spokesman for the American Plastics Council in Arlington, Va. Bags are mixed with sawdust to create plastic lumber for decks, docks and piers. "It doesn't splinter, crack or peel," Krebs said.

Plastic bags also are reprocessed into small pellets, which are then sold to be manufactured into various plastic products.

Over the two-year period of 2001 and 2002, the city of Seattle recycled 287 tons of plastic packaging.

Some environmental groups want to ban or discourage the use of plastic bags. They say plastic bags create litter, harm marine life and add to landfill waste.

In South Africa, discarded plastic bags litter the countryside and are derisively referred to as the "national flower." In 2002, Ireland levied a tax that retail customers had to pay for plastic bags. The tax amounts to about 30 cents a bag and has led to decreased use of the shopping bags, said Stephanie Barger, executive director of the Earth Resource Foundation in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Plastic bags are petroleum-based products that can take 500 years to break down completely.

"It just continues to break down in smaller and smaller pieces," Barger said. "We are extracting and destroying the Earth to use a plastic bag for 10 minutes."

But Krebs of the American Plastics Council said plastic bags don't cause the litter problem.

It's people, not the bags, that create litter, he said.

"The plastic bag is one of the most energy-efficient means of packaging created by man," he said. A 40-foot truck can deliver a million plastic bags. By comparison, it would take six or seven truckloads to deliver a million paper bags, Krebs said.

Customers at Schnucks can still get their groceries bagged in paper sacks. But most shoppers prefer the lightweight plastic bags, said Dennis Marchi, manager of the Schnucks store in Cape Girardeau.

Schnucks allows people to drop off their used plastic grocery bags in a 55-gallon container in the front of the store. Marchi said store employees empty the container at least twice a day.

The used plastic bags are shipped to St. Louis. "It actually costs the company money," Marchi said. "We pay to have someone take them to a bag manufacturer."

But as oil prices climb, Marchi believes there will be increased demand to recycle bags.

"Where it used to be not feasible to do recycling, all of a sudden it becomes feasible," he said.

335-6611, extension 123

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