Demystifying the Big Supermarket Box
January 29, 2020 § 16 Comments
For a while now I’ve wondered what the deal is with those mysterious boxes at the front of the supermarket offering to recycle your plastic shopping bags. Often they’re just big cartons or barrels with a slot in the top and a green recycling arrow on the side. I can’t imagine I’m the only person who’s ever wondered, yeah, but what is this? I mean:
Who collects the bags?
Where do they go?
What can you make plastic bags into anyway- more plastic bags?
Can you recycle other plastics in these boxes?
But after a little research the other day, I was able to call up Stephanie, who helped me to sort it all out. Stephanie works for Trex, and Trex is the answer to the question “Who wants a bunch of empty plastic shopping bags?” This is because Trex turns them into composite decking for outdoor porches and railings.
Yes! There is a company that really does want these plastic shopping bags, and that really will do something constructive with them. Best of all, none of this is part of an elaborate hoax to relieve our guilt at having forgotten the reusable bags at home. Again.
But it gets even better, because Trex doesn’t just want your plastic shopping bags; they want all your polyethylene, which is a science-y word for plastic film, and includes a whole lot of things you’re probably throwing away right now. I found a fabulous poster on the Trex website that I printed out and am hanging in our kitchen to remind us of all the many things that— as long as they are clean and dry— can go into this magical box at our supermarket, including:
- bread bags
- ice bags
- produce bags (both the kind that come on rolls in the store and the kind apples and oranges are already bagged in)
- plastic overwrap from things like paper towels, toilet paper and water bottle cases
- bubble wrap, bubble mailers and air pillows (deflated)
- dry cleaning bags
- Ziploc bags
- newspaper bags
- cereal box liners (unless they tear like paper)
If you don’t find that list super exciting, then you clearly are not me. For one thing, this opens up a whole host of products I thought I wouldn’t be able to buy at all this year, from sandwich bread to cereal. Yes, I’ll still make my own bread and buy it from the bakery. Yes, I’ll still be bringing my reusable mesh produce bags with me on my shopping expeditions.
Yes, I will still always choose the lowest-plastic option of any product, because at 300 million tons of new plastic made per year the world certainly doesn’t need my encouragement to make any more, whether it gets recycled or not. But still. The other day when my daughter Ilsa felt crappy and asked for toast, it was a relief not to have to drive for an hour or wait for bread dough to rise all afternoon- I could just buy her a loaf at the store ten minutes away.
(When your kid is sick, not having to make a choice between them and the entire planetary ecosystem can be worth a lot.)
Now if you are like me you’ve tried to be good. When you read various recycling instructions you inevitably read the recycling warnings too. This is the part that says, in effect: IF YOU PUT ONE WRONG ITEM IN HERE YOU WILL DESTROY AN ENTIRE BATCH OF RECYCLING AND PROBABLY MURDER A POLAR BEAR IN THE PROCESS. These dire warnings all send the same message: “when it doubt, throw it out.” I take issue with this. We don’t need more encouragement to throw things into the landfill. What we need is better information.
Which is why I like people like Stephanie at Trex so much. Her job has everything to do with giving people more information so they can recycle correctly. More companies should have a Stephanie, to answer questions from the public not just about their products, but about their product packaging, and what exactly they expect us to do with it so as to not strangle the planet.
Stephanie answered other questions I had too. She told me that when the plastic film recycling boxes are full they get returned to the supermarket’s distribution centers, where they are converted into 1000-pound bales. She explained that most distribution centers ship one semi-load of these plastic bales to Trex every two weeks.
Wow. That’s a lot of not-landfill.
Most importantly, she told me some simple steps to help people avoid putting the wrong kind of plastic film into the Trex boxes. First, check if it is marked with a #2 or #4 plastics recycling number. If so, this is polyethylene and YES! Trex wants it.
If, however, there is no number to be found, here is an easy test:
- Is the plastic able to be stretched? YES! Trex wants it.
- Is it shiny or crinkly? NO!! Trex cannot use this.
Things that fall into the shiny/crinkly NO!! category include:
- pre-washed salad mix bags
- frozen food bags
- candy wrappers
- chip bags
- 6-pack rings.
So there you have it: some bona-fide good news, courtesy a company that is totally getting a Valentine from me this year. On recycled paper, of course.