Did you know King County is longer recycling plastic bags and films in curbside pickups? I missed the memo, too. The change kicked in on Jan. 1, 2020 and, with a little help from us, it may lead to a more efficient recycling system.

But aren’t plastic bags a thing of the past? After all, Seattle’s plastic bag ban has been in effect since 2012. Well, the 2012 “Bellingham Model” banned plastic grocery bags, but excluded “bags used by shoppers in a store to package bulk foods, meat, flowers, bakery goods or prescriptions; newspaper, door hanger bags and dry cleaning bags.”

That means bread bags, food wraps, Zip-Locs bags, the wrapping around toilet paper, produce bags – basically any plastic that separates you from your grocery items falls under the “plastic bag or wrap” umbrella that King County no longer wants in curbside pickup. That’s a lot of plastic – and most of those items are difficult to avoid completely. My personal struggle lately has been finding a plastic-free way of keeping half an avocado fresh in the fridge. Nothing quite works like a Zip-Loc bag, but it tears me up inside every time I use one. If you have a similar struggle, share it in the comments below.

How is plastic recycled now?

King County is moving to a drop-off system through Plastic Film Recycling, which collects plastic bags and wraps and recycles them into new items. I know, the words “drop-off” sound like a drag, but it’s probably more convenient than you think. The drop-off boxes are located at local grocery stores and retailers, including: QFC, Fred Meyer, Safeway, Albertson’s, WinCo, Kohl’s, Lowe’s, Walmart, Ballard Market, Target, etc. Here’s a map of most of the King County locations to give you an idea of how accessible they are.

Visit Plastic Film Recycling to find the WRAP drop-off location nearest you and learn more about what can be recycled. Here are a few of the most common items, as listed by Plastic Film Recycling:

Plastic recycling drop-off only label
How2Recycle Label for Store Drop-off. Image source.
  • Retail, carryout, produce, newspaper, bread, and dry cleaning bags (clean, dry and free of receipts and clothes hangers)
  • Zip-top food storage bags (clean and dry)
  • (Amazon) Plastic shipping envelopes (remove labels), bubble wrap and air pillows (deflate)
  • Product wrap on cases of water/soda bottles, paper towels, napkins, disposable cups, bathroom tissue, diapers, and female sanitary products
  • Furniture and electronic wrap
  • Plastic cereal box liners (but if it tears like paper, do not include)
  • Any film packaging or bag that has the How2Recycle Label shown at right

Some of the major no-no’s include six-pack rings, chip bags, candy bar wrappers, frozen food bags, and anything degradable/compostable (put in yard waste bin instead).

Recycling plastic at home

You know that plastic bag full of plastic bags under the sink? The one that’s been there for as long as you’ve been living in your home. You could bring the whole bundle to a drop-off station, OR you could use those bags to collect future bags and wrappers. Once you’ve filled it, tie it up tight and put it in a reusable grocery bag to bring on your next grocery run. The only extra step is setting up a receptacle to collect your plastic bags and wraps, which takes less than a minute (yes, I timed myself).

Why the change?

In an October 17, 2019 press release, King County said dirty and wet plastic bags and wrap “contaminate other materials” and “jam sorting and processing equipment, leading to frequent shutdowns so workers can remove the tangled materials.” Theoretically, the county will be able to process hard plastics, paper, cardboard and glass more efficiently with plastic bags and wraps out of the picture.

However, the new system isn’t without faults.

I previously wrote about how the recycling system is failing and we should focus on buying as if nothing get’s recycled. That remains true, and maybe even more so considering Plastic Film Recycling is a subsidiary of the American Chemistry Council, a lobbying group for plastic manufacturers that influenced Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency nominations. With that in mind, it could be argued that these plastic drop-off stations are an attempt to shift plastic crisis blame from manufacturers to “people not recycling well enough.”

Maybe its greenwash or maybe they really are trying to provide a reasonable end-life for plastic bags and wraps. Either way, it’s more Earth-friendly to recycle plastics this way than send them to the landfill.

Whether intentional or not, this drop-off system is a step toward a more circular mindset, in that all the plastic you collected from the grocery store goes back to the grocery store (in principle). It’s not perfect, but at least it disrupts the linear notion of throwing things “away.” There is no away. Away is clogging up a sorting machine before ending up in an ocean or landfill. At least with the drop-off system we can confidently say our plastic is being used to make “composite lumber, decks, benches and playground sets,” according to Plastic Film Recycling.

If you need a total recycling refresher, check out Bela Garcia’s guide to recycling in Seattle.

Feature photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash.