Plastic bags are no longer recyclable items at Knox College.
The decision came from Knox’s recycling vendor Eagle Enterprises Recycling. Adam Jacquet, vice president of the company, said Eagle Enterprises will no longer accept the plastic bags due to complications they impart on automated sorting machines and a drop in plastic film’s market value.
“Plastic film Ñ we were 10 years ago, 15 years ago Ñ we were getting anywhere from maybe 4-12 cents a pound for bales of plastic film,” Jacquet said. “But the plastic film nowadays, if I got a penny a pound out of it I’d be tickled to death.”
Up until 2017, China was the primary market for the U.S’s recycled plastic film. 60% of all U.S recycling materials were bought by China for processing into new materials according to Jacquet, who has been in the business for over 20 years. But the same year, China passed its National Sword policy, banning the import of several grades of materials including plastic film, slashing its market value.
Eagle Enterprises recycled plastic film longer than most other vendors, partly because the company still employs a manual sorting facility in Galva, Illinois, where the plastic film could be picked out by hand. But at Eagle’s automated sorting locations, the film can wrap around the sorting machines, breaking them and preventing other recyclable materials from being properly sorted.
In a society that tends to order many items online and throw them away without considering where they go, Knox Director of Sustainability Debbie Steinburg said she is glad the change has brought more attention to recycling, however, it is just one component of sustainability.
“Big picture, we always talk about the three R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle. Recycling is the least important of the three R’s,” Steinburg said. “I think it’s great we divert as much as we can from the landfill, but we shouldn’t have it in the first place.”
Knox first partnered with Eagle Recycling in 2017. Over the past five years Ñ including summer months and data collected by Eagle and the vendor before it, Jackson Disposal Ñ Knox has collected 874,022 pounds of recycled materials. Within that range, 2018 saw the highest amount collected at 257,715 pounds and the lowest year was 70,180 pounds in 2016.
Steinburg said she believes Knox does a good job of making recycling bins available on campus, but that the greater challenge to sustainability is changing people’s behaviors. She would rather have people who throw their items out in the trash than have people who recycle incorrect materials, ruining a whole bin.
“You have some students who Ñ and faculty and staff Ñ who aren’t doing it (recycling) at all. And then so they’re just throwing everything away,” Steinburg said. “But then you have some students, faculty and staff who feel bad throwing stuff away so they put stuff into the recycling bin because they don’t want to throw it out. But by putting it in the recycling bin it then becomes a contamination.”
Jacquet referred to this as a “wish cycle”. When people try to recycle items that are not on the accepted list of materials, or still contain food residue, it can contaminate nearby materials in the bin, attract vectors like bugs and racoons, and lower the grade of the materials for import.
Before 2017, China accepted a higher volume of low grade recyclable materials from the U.S. The acceptable levels of contamination then dropped from 10-15% to 1.5%-0.5%.
“In 2,000 pounds of cardboard you can only have 10 pounds of non-cardboard materials, which would include things like staples, tape, you know… It’s almost impossible to meet some of those standards,” Jacquet said.
Though this change in the recycling market affects plastic film, it is not exclusive to the material.
“We heard stories of some companies calling others and saying, ‘Hey I have 5,000 tons of mixed paper sitting on a dock, I’ll give it to you if you just get it out of here,” Jacquet said. “And the response they got back was, ‘No, I don’t have anywhere to go with it.’”
Until the markets and machines can make recycling plastic film profitable and logistical again, plastic bags will be sent to the landfill.
“For now I don’t see a bright future for plastic bags, and we would encourage people to try to move away from them as much as possible,” Jacquet said.