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Why are plastic bags a problem?


Why are plastic bags a problem?

By Kelsie Blanthorn, Sustainability Analyst, SHA

Plastic bags have made modern day life extremely convenient. However, they’re hurting efforts to recycle and compost.

When our solid waste drivers come to pick up food waste containers, they glance inside to check that the contents are allowed at the Cedar Grove composting facility. I had the opportunity to join the on-site composting experts one morning and they told me that if they see any plastic bags in a food waste container, they have to empty the whole bin into the garbage.

Plastic bags are the most common contaminator in food waste bins at SHA residences, meaning this is a significant problem that hinders your efforts to stop food from going to the landfill. This is because there is no process at Cedar Grove to separate plastics from the food. An easy solution is to buy green compostable bags from your local grocery store. Tip: make sure the bags are labeled “compostable” and have a green tint before buying.

But I get it, the green bags can be expensive and plastic bags work great to hold your food waste to transport it to the bin. If the green compostable bags are too expensive, there are other solutions! Residents and staff at Westwood Heights have established a system for residents to cut the plastic bags and empty the contents into the bin and then dispose of the bag in a garbage bin next to the food waste. Easy! Another simple solution is to use paper bags, they’re fully compostable so you can throw the whole bag in the bin.

Plastic bags in the recycling are also very problematic. Flimsy plastic materials like bags, film, and plastic wrap from packages get caught in heavy machinery used to separate our recyclables at the facilities. They clog machinery and gears, causing the whole system to be shut down. Workers have to climb in and remove the plastic by hand, risking their safety and reducing productivity. When plastic bags do make it through the machinery intact, they often end up in the landfill or the ocean.

We know that plastic in general can be harmful to the environment, filling up our precious oceans and harming wildlife. About 18 billion pounds of plastic ends up in our oceans. When possible, bring your own bag to the grocery store and avoid products with extra plastic packaging.

The SHA Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability Team is excited to be back in The Voice! In this quarterly column we’ll share tips to make “being green” easy. If you have any questions or concerns about recycling, composting or any other environmental topics please email We may feature your question in one of our posts!