We all know that the best answer to the age old shopping question of “paper or plastic?” is neither. The best defense against unnecessary bag waste is a reusable bag. They hold more and don’t break open on the way home.

But, what about the times we forget our reusable bags? How about bread or produce bags? And, what can we do with those bags that our newspaper comes in?

30 drop-off locations
Well, you can add plastic bags to the list of items that are recycled by the City of Madison in 2010. Madison residents are now required to recycle their clean plastic. The bags can be taken to one of over 30 drop-off locations in Madison, including one at Willy Street Co-op.

The new recycling program has been put forward by the City of Madison as an alternative to the ban on plastic bags that have been enacted in many communities on the east and west coasts. Since all single-use bags have negative environmental consequences, Madison chose to require the recycling of plastic bags, as it currently requires the recycling of paper bags.

Guidelines
The plastic bag recycling ordinance prohibits residents from tossing clean plastic bags into their trash. However, you can still use plastic bags, including grocery and retail bags, for your trash. You may also dispose of any dirty plastic bags. You are not required to clean bags.

Look for the label
The Madison plastic bag program accepts most plastic bags for recycling. The most common bags we accept are grocery and other retail bags, newspaper bags, water softener salt bags, dry cleaning bags, the outer bags from loaves of bread and other bags labeled with either of the following symbols:

We will also accept the plastic produce bags you get at the Co-op for bulk produce and the bags the Co-op uses to prepackage nuts, dried fruit, and bulk items.

Not acceptable
Among the types of bags that cannot be recycled are those used for meat or cheese, food wrapping, and the bags for prepackaged lettuce, spinach, etc. We also cannot recycle cellophane bags such as those found inside cereal boxes or the inner bags used for bread.

What happens next
Plastic bags collected in the recycling program are processed through Waste Management/Recycle America. The bags are ultimately shipped to Trex, Inc. Trex takes the plastic bags and makes them into a product called plastic lumber. This “lumber” is used as a replacement for wood in outdoor furniture, fencing and decks.

Plastic lumber is quite environmentally friendly. It reduces the demand for lumber, thus allowing forests to grow and absorb carbon from the atmosphere. It lasts much longer than wood and does not have to be refinished or painted. This reduces the production of toxic materials used in making finishes.

We hope to be able to add plastic bags to the list of material we can take at the curb in our green recycling bins. Unfortunately, we cannot do that at the present time. Plastic bags cause lots of trouble at the recycling center. The bags become tangled in the sorting equipment which leads to increased maintenance costs and downtime to remove the bags. Our current contract for processing recyclables expires in two years. When we seek new bids to sort our material, we plan to get plastic bags included at that time.

For more information
You will find a complete list of the locations where you can drop off plastic bags and additional information on all our solid waste and recycling programs at www.cityofmadison.com/streets.