Ask G

Ask G: Do plastic bags contaminate recycling?

Find out what happens to plastic bags in recycling facilities.

I live in an apartment complex and every time I put my recycling into the communal bin, other people have bagged up their recyclable items in plastic bags. It doesn’t matter how much people are told not to put plastic bags filled with recyclables in the bins, it constantly happens.
What I want to know is, what happens then? Do the plastic bags contaminate the entire lot? Does someone go through it after it’s collected, untie the bags and remove them? Or do the plastic bags just get recycled along with everything else?
- Vikki Mason, NSW.


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This is one common habit that drives recyclers nuts! Plastic bags are a particularly hated contaminant because they can get tangled in the cogs, gears and machinery of recycling sorting lines.

Recycling facilities, particularly in major capital cities, are increasingly automated. Hand sorting is limited, much of it done at the start of the process. Typically, recyclables are fed through the facility on a rapidly-moving conveyor belt. Workers quickly pull off the contaminants and items that can cause problems further down the line. Plastic bags, along with clothes (also a machinery tangler) and large rubbish items, are pulled off and thrown in a pile destined for landfill.

Opening plastic bags to get at the recyclables takes time; very few facilities do it. So tell your neighbours if they want their bottles, cans and boxes to actually get recycled, DON’T put them in plastic bags. Plastic bags are collected separately: most supermarkets have special collections bins solely for plastic bags.