There is seldom a one-size-fits all solution to big problems, and the folks of Madison, Wisconsin are proving that point. As cities all across the United States are banning plastic disposable bag in hopes of reducing litter and preventing these non-biodegradable nuisances from taking up space in garbage dumps, Madison decided to step up efforts to recycle plastic bags. In 2009 Madison began a plastic bag recycling program. Drop-off locations were setup throughout the area and residents could simply deposit their plastic bags. The program was an overwhelming success and sanitation department crews found themselves emptying the bins every few days when they had anticipated picking up bags every other week. There was a reduction in unsightly litter and the community was cleaner for everyone and safer for wildlife. Unfortunately, maintaining the drop-off locations has become a bit of a financial burden. When the program launched there were 10 drop-offs, in an effort to cut costs the city reduced the drop-offs to four. These four drop-off locations were proving too costly, and the city was faced with an issue: how do they continue to recycle plastic bags while keeping costs down?
Madison already had a curbside recycling program in place so the decision was made to allow residents to dispose of their plastic bags in their curbside recycling bins. The guidelines are simple: most bags are included, such as grocery, retail, produce, and newspaper bags, as well as bread bags, food storage bags and other plastic bags marked as No. 2 or No. 4 plastic. Residents are being asked to place all of their bags inside a large bag and tie the exterior bag to ensure everything is contained. The city asks this in order to prevent the bags from becoming entangled in the sorting equipment once they are picked up, but it also serves to prevent loose bags from being carried off by the wind and blown away, creating litter.
Reusable Bags and Sustainability
Madison has a great track record of recycling plastic bags and they should serve as a model to other cities. Many cities focus on banning bags, which is a fantastic long-term goal, but upping efforts to recycle addresses the issue of what to do with the plastic bags already out there. The next logical step after successfully recycling plastic bags is making the switch to reusable shopping bags. Reusable bags are constructed to be more durable than the one-and-done bags grocers hand out, so there is a clear functional advantage since you can carry more goods in fewer bags. Reusable bags also come in a variety of materials, so you can find something that works to meet your needs or something that just speaks to you. For instance, jute is a renewable material that can create a bohemian-chic look and since the fibers are natural it can go back from whence it came. You can compost your bag when it becomes old and worn since the material is biodegradable. RPET bags on the other hand are made from recycled plastics. This sturdy material comes in a variety of finishes and can be imprinted with full-color graphics for an eye-catching look. The bags are also waterproof so they can contain spills or leaks and hold up on rainy days, unlike paper bags.
Reusable grocery bags are definitely a piece of the puzzle when it comes to sustainability and social responsibility regarding the environment. Just about everyone understands that plastic disposable bags are not the best call when it comes to the environment, some people feel motivated to take action on this while others do not. Simply making the switch from disposable to reusable bags is not enough. We cannot just turn our backs on the millions of plastic bags currently out there. They need to be disposed of properly, they need to be recycled. The beauty of recycling plastic bags is that they can come back as something better, something useful, like composite lumber, or pallets, or pipe.
The sad reality is that only a small fraction of the bags handed out end up being recycled, and if the bags are not recycled they can pose harm to the environment and wildlife. Madison is the exception because the current recycling efforts in most places are not enough. Madison's plan is so smart because it is so simple. They found a way to increase plastic bag recycling and along the way changed their plan to fit their needs and keep costs down. This program also reduces litter and helps the environment. For more information about Madison's recycling efforts, check out http://www.cityofmadison.com/streets/documents/recyclopedia.pdf.