How Our Recycling Systems Work

Paper cardboard recycling
Photo by Bas Emmen on Unsplash

“We get out of recycling systems what we put into them.” -Beth Porter1

Recycling is not the answer to all of our waste problems. Simply put, we’ve produced more plastic at this point than we could ever recycle away.

However, recycling can still be a part of the solution to protect ourselves and the planet, because we have to try. Ultimately we are responsible for the items and packaging from items we consume. Recycling, though far from a perfect solution, reduces the number of trees cut down for paper and the number of natural resources we harvest. Additionally, it curbs the production of new plastics and thus the fossil fuels we extract.

Green and white recycling truck on street, using a the lift to dump a residential recycling bin on a street.
Photo by the Brisbane City Council on Flickr, Creative Commons license(CC BY 2.0)

Single-Stream Recycling

“Ultimately, for recycling to become a way of life for consumers and end-users, recycling had to be easy, and it had to save money.”-Ryan Deer, Roadrunner Recycling, Inc.2

Single-stream simply means mixed materials in one group – one stream of materials. If your recycling goes in one bin and is picked up curbside, then you have single-stream recycling in your area.

The idea for single-stream came about in the 1990s because of two beliefs. First, that the convenience of putting everything in one bin would encourage more residents to participate in recycling. Using EPA statistics, one recycling company noted that single-stream recycling “overhauled the underperforming process, taking our national recycling rate from 10.1% in 1985 to 25.7% in 1995 to nearly 32% in 2005.”3

“Curbside recycling grew by 250 percent from 1988 to 1991…People were making the decision to incorporate sorting recyclable goods into their daily routine, reminiscent of war-era conservation efforts.” -Beth Porter4

The second belief is that single-stream recycling systems reduce collection costs. A single truck can collect more volume with mixed materials which reduces transportation costs. However, while collections costs are lower, the processing costs are much higher because of the sorting and separation, tasks which are performed by a combination of humans and expensive sorting machinery.

About 80% of U.S. communities use a single-stream recycling system. “Unfortunately, few could have predicted how low the ceilings really were, or how one move in global policy could send it all crashing down,” referring to China’s 2018 ban on many types of recycling imports.5 Single-stream is clearly riddled with problems and we must find a better way to handle recycling.

“More than 20 million tons of curbside recyclable materials are disposed [of] annually. Curbside recycling in the U.S. currently recovers only 32% of available recyclables in single-family homes, leaving enormous and immediate  opportunity for growth to support the economy, address climate change, and keep recyclable commodities out of landfills.”6

A bird's eye view of the interior of a Material Recovery Facility (MRF).
A bird’s eye view of the interior of a Material Recovery Facility (MRF). Photo by Urban Greendom on Flickr, Creative Commons license, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Material Recovery Facility (MRF)

Recycling collected through single-stream is taken to a Material Recovery Facility, or MRF (pronounced”murf”), and sorted by type of material for them to sell. That is the entire purpose of a MRF: the recycling trucks deposit the collected materials, and the MRF sorts, separates, removes waste from, and bales the recycling together. MRFs are businesses seeking profit; they are not municipally owned and operated.

The physical processing at MRFs varies. But a series of expensive, interconnected machines largely sorts the materials. We produce so much waste that there is no other way to separate it. In 2018, the U.S. produced 292.4 million tons of waste, and we recycled approximately 69 million tons.7 That’s not enough.

Generally, at the MRF, trucks dump the mixed materials onto a large floor, called the tipping floor. A front-end loader drops it into a large bin, called a drum feeder, at the start of the processing line. The materials move through a series of conveyor belts with fans, magnets, and wheels to separate the types of items. Humans remove debris and non-recyclable items at various points to prevent tangling or damage to the machinery. Small items, such as caps and utensils, are not likely to make it through these systems because of their size. In addition, they are difficult to bale because they do not have much surface area. For a video of how MRFs work, see Additional Resources below.

At the end of this process, the MRF bales the recyclables to sell to recyclers and manufacturers. The markets change constantly so one of the biggest challenges is recouping money from the materials. Remember, the MRF is looking to profit just like any other business. Recycling does not happen unless it is profitable.

Worker looking at bales of recycling at a recycling center.
Photo by Vivianne Lemay on Unsplash

Increased Contamination

Contamination is simply the mixing of recyclables with dirty items and non-recyclables. The average resident may not want to spend time cleaning their recyclables, or they may not know it is necessary. They may not understand what is and is not accepted in their local recycling. They may also be “wish-cycling,” which is when someone attempts to recycle something they think should be recycled, like a plastic bag, but which is not recyclable. That plastic bag can get tangled in the machinery at the MRF, and it contaminates the end product of recyclables the MRF needs to sell. If the recyclables have too many contaminates, or non-recyclable items, those bales are likely to be landfilled or incinerated rather than sold to a company that will reuse them.

“When consumers put non-recyclable items into their recycling bins, those materials take a long and circuitous (and expensive) route to the landfill.” -Jennie Romer8

Contamination rates more than doubled between 2007 and 2013.9 “Because of how the system works, the ‘magic bin’ is actually a disgusting, contaminated soup pot. Shaken, stirred, and dumped into a compactor truck with your neighbors’ random mix, contamination keeps 25% of what we put in our recycling bin from ever being processed at a MRF,” wrote Ryan Deer.10 Reducing contamination is key, but it is difficult within a single-stream recycling system.

“For nearly 30 years, Americans have been honeymooning with a recycling system that seems too good to be true.” -Ryan Deer, Roadrunner Recycling, Inc.11

Paper recycling bale, contaminated with a blue plastic Finesse shampoo bottle.
Paper recycling bale, contaminated with a plastic shampoo bottle. Photo by Vivianne Lemay on Unsplash

Dual-Stream Recycling

In a dual-stream system, each material type is kept in a separate bag or bin, and trucks have three or more compartments. The materials are already sorted upon arrival at the MRF. This was the common recycling collection system until single-stream became the dominant system by the mid-1990s. It costs more and requires trucks with separate sections. But the higher costs “of having residents sort could very well be offset by the higher-quality materials they’re recovering and able to sell.” Single-stream loses about 25% of collected materials from contaminants versus less than 12% in dual-stream.1213

Essentially, most recycling centers serve as a dual-stream system because residents separate the recycling into different dumpsters, which the recycling company collects directly. This results in lower contamination and higher recovery rates, meaning less of that recycling is landfilled.

“There is significant evidence that the resulting scrap material quality (and hence the revenue) is lower under single-stream collection than it is under a dual stream system or under systems like container deposits, where materials are kept separate.” -The Container Recycling Institute14

Collected PET plastic bottles crushed.
Photo by tanvi sharma on Unsplash

System-Wide Problems

Although consumers need to do their part, the problems with recycling in the U.S. do not fall solely on the public. In fact, the systems in place are themselves faulty. Packaging and single-use disposable production are out of control, and the market demand is low. The market needs improvement, as the cost for new materials is sometimes lower than recycled materials. Additionally, only between 50-74% of Americans have access to curbside recycling. There are multiple problems. But that doesn’t mean it can’t change. As The Recycling Partnership noted:

“The ultimate fate of recyclable materials rests in the hands of a broad set of stakeholders who must all do something new and different to support a transition to a circular economy. Strong, coordinated action is needed in areas ranging from package design, capital investments, scaled adoption of best management practices, policy interventions, and consumer engagement.15

How To Recycle Better

While recycling systems must be improved and we must find or create demand for recycled materials, we can help improve our own practices. Remember, that just because a product is made with recycled materials, does not necessarily mean it is recyclable. “A 2016 survey showed that 59 percent of the public thinks that ‘most types of items’ are recyclable in their town, perhaps without knowing the local rules,” wrote Beth Porter.16 You can find a list of what is acceptable in your area by going to your municipal website.

Here’s how you can help improve single-stream and dual-stream recycling to keep from contaminating the recycling:

      • Don’t put in plastic bags or films. (Note: Supermarkets often collect bags.)
      • Do not bag your recyclables.
      • Empty and rinse the containers. Food contamination, especially as it rots, reduces the value of the recyclables.
      • Don’t crush plastic recyclables. This is so that the MRF can read the resin codes (plastic #) on the bottom of the containers.
      • Separate the caps and only recycle them if they have a proper resin code that is accepted in your area. Most of the time, you will be throwing these away.
      • Do not recycle candy wrappers, paper cups, receipts, plastic straws and utensils, polystyrene or Styrofoam, shredded paper, complex cartons (milk cartons, broth, soup, etc.), large plastic items (chairs, laundry baskets, etc), electronics, or batteries.
      • Certain types of glass cannot be recycled: window, mirror, crystal, or Pyrex.
      • Do not put in take-out containers, especially foam ones, unless they are plastic #1 or #2 and are clean.
      • Pizza boxes depend on your area, but most of the time the grease on the cardboard contaminates recycling. You can tear off the bottom and recycle the top if it is free of grease and food.
      • Remove shrinkwraps from #1 and #2 bottles.
      • Frozen food boxes are usually not recyclable because they contain a layer of plastic coating (to protect the package from moisture).
      • Flatten cardboard boxes.
      • Other items that you should put in the garbage, and not the recycling, include applesauce/juice packets, milk or broth cartons (or any multi-layer packaging), and paper napkins/towels.

Some of the items listed above are accepted through separate recycling streams. Elizabeth Royte wrote, “A common motto is ‘When in doubt, throw it out,’ but I prefer the alternative ‘When in doubt, go find out’ to build better habits rather than giving up on confusing items.”17 Do your best and teach others how to recycle better as well.

The bottom line is, if we purchase something, we need to take responsibility for disposing of it. If we stop buying so many products in single-use disposable containers, especially plastics, the companies and manufacturers will stop producing them as demand goes down. At the same time, companies must take real initiative and stop producing waste that is not recyclable.

Graphic of a tree with the leaves in the shape of a recycling symbol. Blue sky background.
Image by 政徳 吉田 from Pixabay

Going Forward

“If all of the 37.4 million tons of single-family recyclables were put back to productive use instead of lost to disposal, it would reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 96 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, conserve an annual energy equivalent of 154 million barrels of oil, and achieve the  equivalent of taking more than 20 million cars off U.S. highways.”18

We have the opportunity to make a real difference by better handling our waste. While recycling is not the answer to our waste problems, it is still very important. We need a coordinated effort to reduce waste, to increase demand and markets for recycling, and to be better stewards of the waste we do create. The Recycling Partnership lists these strategies in order to overhaul and improve our recycling systems:

    • “Substantially greater support of community recycling programs with capital funding, technical assistance, and efforts to strengthen and grow local political commitment to recycling services.
    • Development of new and enhanced state and federal recycling policies.
    • Continued and expanded investment in domestic material processing and end markets.
    • Citizen and consumer engagement to create and sustain robust and appropriate recycling behavior.
    • Continued innovation in the collection, sorting and general recyclability of materials, including the building of flexibility and resiliency to add new materials into the system.
    • Broader stakeholder engagement in achieving all elements of true circularity, in which the fate of all materials is not just intended to be recycled, but that they are designed, collected, and actually turned into something new.”19

In the end, we need to focus on reducing waste, including “recyclables,” in order to turn the tide of excessive waste. We must stop wishing for easy and convenient solutions and instead take responsibility for our waste.

Will we do it? What are your ideas? Feel free to leave me a comment below. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Video, “How Recycling Works,” SciShow, June 11, 2015. I love how succinctly this video breaks down how recycling works at the MRF. You’ll learn a lot in just 8 minutes!

Article, “What is a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF)?,” by Shelby Bell,

Video, “Single Stream Recycling – Tour a Material Recovery Facility (MRF),” Van Dyk Recycling Solutions, October 13, 2016.

Video, “Ever Wonder Where Your Recyclables Go? Get an Inside Look at Where the Magic Happens,” about the Sims Municipal Recycling facility in New York City, featured by Mashable Deals on youtube, May 29, 2018.

Article, “These Items Don’t Belong in Your Recycling,” by Ryan Deer,

Article, “The Violent Afterlife of a Recycled Plastic Bottle: What happens after you toss it into the bin?” by Debra Winter, The Atlantic, December 4, 2015.

Article, “Recycling in the U.S. Is Broken. How Do We Fix It?” by Renee Cho, Columbia Climate School, March 13, 2020.

Footnotes:

Chattanooga Suspends Curbside Recycling

Last updated September 6, 2021.

City of Chattanooga 96 gallon blue bin
City of Chattanooga 96 gallon blue bin. Photo by me

Chattanooga has suspended curbside recycling.

Just like that, with one day’s notice. It was announced in a news release on July 29 and took effect on July 30. I worry that this will not be a temporary suspension and that the “non-essential” city service will end long-term. The City removed glass recycling from curbside pick-up in 2018 and never brought it back.

The mayor seems determined to bring it back. According to their news release, “Residents should keep their recycling containers. Curbside recycling will be reinstated. However, residents may also call 311 to have their containers picked up.”1

Why?

The City of Chattanooga has suspended curbside recycling pick-up because of a shortage of truck drivers. There are simply not enough people to run the trucks to collect the recycling with over 30 open CDL driver positions. The City must focus on garbage pick up because that is an essential service required by law. Officials indicated that even garbage services could see disruptions if they are not able to hire a sufficient number of employees.

While this is certainly pandemic related, the other major factor is a lower than average salary for city employees. The mayor’s Chief of Staff said, “The impact to recycling due to our driver shortage illustrates one of Chattanooga’s most acute problems: pay for city employees is far below the market rate, a problem our budget will address when we present it to City Council in August.”2

“This was a difficult decision. An increasing shortage of drivers, low employee retention and hiring challenges are just a few of the issues that made continued curbside recycling untenable.” -City of Chattanooga press release4

Dark green recycling containers at the Access Road center. Each are labeled with signs for plastic, aluminum, steel cans, and glass.
Recycling containers at the Access Road recycling center. Photo by me

How to Recycle Now

Going forward, we will have to take our recycling to the closest recycling center. The City’s news release told residents to go to one of the five city-run recycling centers. However, there are a total of 10 recycling centers in Chattanooga and Hamilton County, and you can use any of them. I’ve created a map showing the 5 city centers in green, and the 5 county centers in orange:

Generally, all the centers take #1 and #2 plastics, aluminum and steel cans, newspaper, mixed paper, cardboard, glass, and some offer computer equipment and oil collection. I’ve listed links to both the City and County’s websites under Additional Resources.

Note that none of the recycling centers collect #3-#7 plastics. The only reason they were allowed in the curbside bins is that the Chattanooga Code of Ordinances states that they will collect it.5So even though they include that they will pick up all plastics #1-#7, only #1 and #2 are actually sent for recycling. There is little or no market for #3-#7 and those are landfilled.

My son tossing a glass jar into the recycling container at a Chattanooga recycling center.
My son tossing a glass jar into the recycling container at a Chattanooga recycling center. Photo by me

Impact

For residents who are either unable or unwilling to cart their recyclables to the centers, this will be the end of recycling for them. That recycling will now go to the landfill. These are typically 96-gallon bins. Our household routinely filled the blue recycling bin long before the garbage bin, and we only put our garbage out every few weeks. But I regularly see other households’ garbage bins overflowing week after week, and I can only expect to see an increase with no recycling curbside service.

Update: The City apparently did not account for the increase in recycling that would be dropped off at the recycling centers. With the exception of glass, the bins have been full and so overflowing it was hard to fit my stuff into them. This has been frustrating and extremely disappointing.

The standard issue City of Chattanooga blue recycling bin and green garbage bin side by side, showing their equal size.
The standard-issue City of Chattanooga blue recycling bin and green garbage bin side by side, showing their almost equal size. Photo by me

Time For Change?

I argue that now is the time for a change. Single-stream recycling systems are wrought with problems regarding sorting, separation, and contamination (meaning residents mix in unrecyclable items). So do we want our imperfect single-stream recycling system back? Does it increase recycling participation even though it lowers the quality of the recovered materials? Or do we need to look at other options such as lowering our use of single-use disposable plastics? Perhaps we could shift our focus to reducing waste in general?

Perhaps now is not a time to demand bringing the old system back, but a time to overhaul the City of Chattanooga’s waste management systems in general. We could pass city-wide bans on single-use plastics such as straws, plastic bags, and take-out containers. We could implement city-wide composting to reduce methane emissions. This would also allow the city to have great soil for landscape projects, urban gardens, and free or low-cost soil for residents. The opportunities are out there, but are we ready here?

Let me know your thoughts by leaving me a comment below. Thank you for reading, and please share and subscribe!

Update: The City of Chattanooga announced that they would do a one-time emergency curbside pick-up of the blue recycling bins. The announcement’s wording was that the city wanted to “empty” the bins before the plan to hopefully resume full service in October. Residents were informed to put recycling bins out on the same day as regular garbage pick-up. Many were excited that they could again recycle, even if it was just this once. Others were skeptical, myself included. I asked if they would be picking up both bins with one truck, as that would mean all of the materials would be landfilled.

Evidently, many called and emailed the city to ask the same question, which prompted the city to respond and be transparent. The materials from the one-time emergency recycling pick-up will go to the landfill. The city wants to empty the recycling bins, since it was ended so abruptly, to have a fresh start. “Many residents’ bins have..been sitting outside in the weather for several weeks now—rendering the material inside too poor a quality for a second life in the recycling aftermarket,” wrote a city spokesperson.6 The City should have been upfront about this. I know that at least half of the city residents have not followed this story and will put their stuff out, unknowingly sending it to the landfill.

Chattanooga, we can do better than this.

 

Additional Resources:

Page, “Recycling,” City of Chattanooga government website, accessed July 31, 2021.

Page, “Where/When to Recycle, Hamilton County,” Tennessee government website, accessed July 31, 2021.

Footnotes:

Fireworks on the beach

Fireworks on a beach in Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Fireworks on a beach in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Photo by A n v e s h on Unsplash

I love fireworks. My son loves fireworks. So much so that we drag my (grumbling) husband to watch them every July 4th. However, I do like to leave the annual tradition of blowing up sparkly gunpowder to the professionals. I have never taken much to buying and setting off my own fireworks, especially with a young child around. Since I don’t purchase consumer fireworks, I honestly have never given much thought to the waste they create. But then my best friend, who lives on the coast of North Carolina, sent me this photo the day after July 4th last year:

Fireworks debris collected on a North Carolina beach
Fireworks debris collected on a North Carolina beach, July 5, 2020. Photo by Taylor Notion

She collected that much plastic and cardboard firework waste on a walk where she lives, all left behind by people the night before. That’s the amount she found that hadn’t already washed into the ocean during high tide. That’s from just one section of one beach, in one town. I imagine fireworks at the beach are fun and beautiful, but at what cost to the environment?

Waste

After reading multiple news articles from coastal states, particularly Florida, I discovered that the Independence Day firework waste collected is measured in tons. Tons! Even on beaches where fireworks are illegal, such as on Hilton Head Island, beach patrol collected seven trailers’ worth of fireworks debris in 2019.

“Any regular beach walker will tell you about encountering little ribbons of plastic along the tide line in the days and weeks after the Fourth of July. All waiting for the high tide that will be their ride to join that vast swirl of ocean-borne plastics.” -Mark Lane, The Daytona Beach News-Journal

Since these are set off in the dark, it’s difficult to find all of the scattered pieces once exploded. “Fireworks launchers are big and easy to spot and haul away, but each rocket launched and bomb exploded rains tiny shards of plastics and cardboard along with a smattering of metals like lead and copper.”

Plastics

The plastic bits break down into smaller pieces called microplastics, which are then ingested by fish and marine animals. The toxins from those plastics make their way through the food chain, all the way into our bodies.

Saturn Missile Battery fireworks
This 25 shot Saturn Missile costs under $2.00 but will leave microplastics for hundreds of years.

Here is just one example. The Saturn Missile Battery (SMB), which I’ve seen debris from in a lot of Fifth of July clean-up images, is a common type of aerial firework. It consists of a cardboard base packed with between 25 to 1,000 shots. These shots are small plastic tubes filled with explosive powder. “When an SMB is detonated, each of those tubes shoots into the air with a shrill whistle, shatters apart and falls back to earth, creating a shower of litter that’s hard for even the best-intentioned reveler to clean up. Unlike colorful caps and wings, the dull gray or green SMB litter blends into sand and soil.” These bits of plastics and microplastics will last for hundreds of years.

Fifth of July Clean-ups

For all celebrations at the beach, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommends cleaning up after ourselves, participating in coastal clean-ups, and educating others. “By celebrating the Fourth of July and enjoying fireworks responsibly, we can honor our country through protecting our beloved coastal environments, and the marine animals who rely on these habitats.”

Fireworks on a road
Photo by Alexander Kagan on Unsplash

Wildlife Disturbance

Left on the beaches, fireworks debris harms marine life. They block the paths of sea turtles and crabs. Not to mention birds and marine animals ingest these small pieces of debris. Additionally, there are dangers to all wildlife from injury and entanglement from the plastic garbage. Unfortunately, July 4th is during prime sea turtle nesting season.

The noise from fireworks disturbs animals everywhere, from eagles and other birds to our domesticated love ones. The loud explosions cause panic and despair in many animals. Just think of how your dog or your neighbor’s dog reacts every 4th of July.

“Environmentalists from Clearwater Marine Aquarium and Audubon Bird Stewards reported that the noise, debris, and lights from fireworks were negatively impacting both sea turtles and beach nesting birds. Fireworks cause aborted nesting attempts, ingestion of plastic residue, and disturbed and disoriented hatchlings, all of which significantly reduces the number of successful births.”

Seal with a plastic or rubber ring growing into the skin around its neck.
Any litter you leave on the beach can potentially harm another species. Image by Noutch from Pixabay

Other Problems from Fireworks

Consumer fireworks cause thousands of injuries annually in the United States. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 2019 there were approximately 10,000 injuries from fireworks treated in emergency departments, with about 73% of those during just a one-month interval surrounding July 4th.

In addition, fireworks, both consumer and professional types, are potentially toxic to the air and water, hence to us, wildlife, and the water we drink.

Fireworks from gender reveal parties have caused massive wildfires.

Did you know that Americans spend close to $1 billion annually on consumer fireworks? This number astonished me for many reasons. Do you know how many problems we could solve for ourselves, wildlife, and the planet with $1 billion? Make a list, pick one, and I bet it’s money better spent than just blowing it up.

Fireworks debris piled up on sand.
Photo by Karen Montgomery on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Environmentally Friendly Fireworks

There have been some developments with making more environmentally friendly fireworks, but these changes have not been significant enough to make large-scale differences. These include fireworks released with compressed air as an alternate propellant and changing the chemical make-up to reduce pollutants, but the studies on the latter are still new and the impact is not clear. In consumer fireworks, some companies are trying to switch to recycled paper and cardboard components over plastics, but testing new products takes time and money.

Fireworks debris on the coast of New Zealand.
Photo by Murray Adamson on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

New Traditions

July 4th is no celebration for the environment and wildlife. We can do better. Especially with something that is so non-essential to our lives.

I argue that we don’t need to set off consumer fireworks or sparklers on the beach or anywhere else in nature, at all. In fact, I began this article as a person who loved to drag her family to professional fireworks every summer, but after researching the problems even they create, I’m starting to think differently. Are there new traditions we can create? What about laser light shows?

If you do set off fireworks on the beach or in a natural area, please take safety precautions and clean up the debris. It really matters! We can all make a difference and encourage others to do the right thing. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe.

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Let Freedom Ring and Fireworks Fly, but Keep Debris off the Beaches and Out of the Sky!” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program, July 1, 2019.

Article, “Fireworks: Can they ever be eco-friendly?” Deutsche Welle, accessed June 19, 2021.

Article, “Are Fireworks Bad for the Environment?” by Russell McLendon, Treehugger.com, updated February 23, 2021.

Footnotes:

 

You Don’t Need to Spend Money on Trash Bags

Earth globe in a blue plastic bag
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

I haven’t bought trash bags in more than four years.

How on Earth is that possible? I can’t wait to tell you!

Paying for trash

Garbage bag, Image by cocoparisienne on Pixabay.
Image by cocoparisienne on Pixabay

We are intentionally paying for something we are going to throw away.

We all pay for garbage removal in some form, whether through municipal or property taxes or through a waste management service. On top of that, the traditionally accepted way of containing this trash is single-use plastic trash bags. We pay for new plastic bags, made from fossil fuels, to deposit and remove waste from our homes.

Every time consumers purchase plastic, we are supporting the plastics industry and fueling the effort to harvest more fossil fuels. Then we take those bags we paid for and put them in the ground. We are paying to throw stuff away.

“The first plastic garbage bag was produced in 1950. Globally, these bags collect 7.4 million tons of waste each day.”1

I’ve saved quite a bit of money by not buying trash bags. Trash bags range from $4 per box up to $12 per box depending on size, strength, flexibility, and even scent. Advertisers want you to believe that the most expensive trash bags will keep your home clean and sanitary. This is not a new trend, but one that has been accelerated by companies such as Glad Products (owned by Clorox) who conducted surveys and discovered that many Americans believe any bad smell means their home is dirty (or rather, fear that other people will think they’re house is dirty). Worse, scented trash bags likely contain phthalates (commonly referred to as “fragrances”) which are usually endocrine and hormone disruptors that can cause serious health problems over time. These scents may mask the odor of your garbage, but at what cost to your health?

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Another marketing trend to be aware of is “biodegradable” or bioplastic trash bags. Don’t be fooled. Nothing, including these bags, breaks down in a landfill. They require an industrial composting facility to biodegrade. “There’s also no telling if harmful additives or chemicals were added during the manufacturing process, and not all bags labeled biodegradable or compostable will actually break down in a compost facility.”2 Recycled plastic trash bags are better than new or ‘virgin’ plastic bags, but I still do not buy these for my home. 

“Landfills are not meant to encourage decomposition. They are dry and anaerobic spaces that essentially ‘mummify’ anything contained in them, including plastic.”3 

But now you can stop buying them too.

Necessity

Three years ago, it occurred to me that I was wasting money buying bags just to put in a landfill. Then I read a blog article on myplasticfreelife.com and decided that there really is no need for store-bought plastic garbage bags. “Since we make almost zero trash, and the trash we do make is dry, we don’t have any need for bags to collect it,” the author wrote.[efn_note]Article, “Collecting Garbage Without Plastic Trash Bags?” myplasticfreelife.com, February 15, 2010.[/efn_note] I found that once I eliminated wet garbage, I no longer needed plastic garbage bags.

What is wet garbage?

This mostly refers to food scraps and food waste. If you are able to compost through a municipal service like the ones they have in California, please do so. However, many cities and states do not offer this service as part of their waste management plan, including where we live. My family decided to start our own compost bin, which you can read about here. If you start composting, you will not have wet trash and thus will not need a plastic liner. Best of all, except for the initial cost of implementing a compost bin, composting is free! If you are paying for waste removal directly, you can reduce the amount of trash and frequency of pick-ups (thus cost savings) simply by composting.

About 34% of our waste is food scraps, yard trimmings, and other biological waste.

Waste reduction

We’ve noticed that many neighbors fill their 96-gallon city-issued garbage bin almost every week. We’ve only filled ours once, and that was when we had a major bathroom remodel in our home. But every city household is allotted a 96-gallon garbage bin that is picked up weekly. I haven’t done the exact math, but I believe that that is between 8 and 12 million gallons of garbage per week that our just our city is potentially landfilling.

This must stop. Our globe cannot sustain this level of trash.

Full 96-gallon city issued garbage bin
City-issued 96-gallon garbage bin, full with a week’s worth of trash from a single household. Photo by me

My family reduced our waste by buying food and other items with as little packaging as possible. We eliminated single-use disposable items and recycled what we could. Striving to be plastic-free and live a minimalist lifestyle reduced our overall trash. With these efforts, combined with composting, our garbage volume went down to about one bag of trash per month!

One bag of trash per month is far from our zero-waste goal, but it’s much less compared to most households. And Chattanooga is not zero-waste friendly.

Black garbage bag with the phrase, "Where does the garbage go?"
“Where Does the Garbage Go?” by Colin Dunn on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Is Trash-Bag Free Possible?

It depends on how much trash you create, where you live, and how trash is transported. Some municipalities require garbage to be bagged. I wanted to stop using trash bags completely. But what I discovered with our city waste haulers is that unbagged garbage tends to either not make it into the trucks and falls on the ground in the neighborhood, or it blows out of the truck while they are driving down the road. In fact, I saw it happening so often that I tried to report the incidents to the city. But I could not obtain enough information about specific trucks while driving to provide good reporting, so nothing came of that. Pay attention to the waste hauling trucks in your area, or call your local municipality and find out if they have measures in place to help prevent these problems.

Back of garbage truck
This garbage truck lost several pieces of trash as I went down the same road, mainly lightweight plastic pieces. The Tennessee River flows through Chattanooga and any waste that gets into the river ends up in the ocean. Photo by me (at a stoplight).

Trash Bag Alternatives

I let our house run out of garbage bags three years ago and haven’t bought any since. However, since we have to use some kind of trash bag, just to keep our trash contained after it is picked up by the city, we use anything that resembles a garbage bag and staple them closed when it is full to prevent spillage. You can use anything! The most common of these includes:

      • Brown paper bags from the grocery store
      • Empty dog food bags
      • Large shopping bags that show up (even though we always use our own cloth bags at the store, these still manage to make their way into my home from shipping, other people, etc.)
      • Mulch and gravel bags (this is hard to buy in bulk where we live unless you own a truck)
      • Foil insulation bags (these are from Amazon/Whole Foods – during COVID-19 we had to get grocery store delivery for a while, and this was how they delivered our cold items. We have a couple of dozen of these now and they are not recyclable.)
      • Make your own DIY trash bags out of shipping envelopes

I also loved finding a use for these items. It felt wrong to buy a trash bag to throw away more bags or paying to bag the bags.

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Looking Forward

I would like to further reduce my waste through less and better packaging, improved zero waste capabilities, striving for plastic-free living, and minimalism. Ideally, someday, I won’t have so many shipping envelopes around. It would be better if I could purchase items in person and locally, which will take not only getting past the pandemic but businesses increasing package-free/plastic-free/zero-waste options in our area as well.

So free yourself from this practice of buying new plastic to almost directly put in the ground. You can stop paying for trash bags today, and use whatever bags come into your home. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe!

 

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