For many, a trip the the grocery store ends by walking out to the car with a basket full of food in plastic bags. And if you’ve tossed those bags into the recycling cart after you get home, you’re likely contributing to a problem for recycling facilities.
At an August Norman City Council retreat, members discussed how to address the city’s plastic bag problem. One solution is to place a fee on every plastic bag used in Norman, in hopes to discourage their use. Ward 6 Councilwoman Breea Clark says cities like Boulder, Colorado, have successfully placed a five-cent fee on bags.
After Republic Services picks up curbside recycling, its trucks take the empty glass bottles, old homework assignments, used milk jugs and other recyclables to Batliner Recycling in west Oklahoma City. There, all of the items are dumped into a large pile. A wheeled loader mixes the items before placing them on a conveyor belt to begin the sorting process.
This is where plastic bags first cause problems for the facility. With single-stream recycling, consumers are able to throw all of their recycling into one bin. But, once the items make it to the recycling facility, they have to be sorted into different types of paper, plastic and glass. That sorting process can’t take place if the items are in plastic trash bags.
A fast-moving, jumbled line of paper, plastic and glass whizzes by on an elevated conveyor belt. All of it is sorted by a combination of large machines and human hands. Before the materials arrive at the sorting machine, one employee tries to snatch as many plastic bags as he can.
If bags get past this point — and many do — they begin to wreak havoc on the equipment. The first sorting machine uses rotating shafts that allow lighter items like paper and plastic to float up the line, while heavier items like glass fall between the shafts.
Plastic bags get wrapped around those rotating shafts daily, causing the entire line to be shut down. A worker must be lowered into the machine by a harness connected to the ceiling. Then, the worker removes each plastic bag by hand.
At the end of the line, many plastic bags end up in a pile of waste, which Batliner general manager Scot Stonebraker says consists of about half plastic bags and half recyclable material. But, after going through the sorting process once, the facility doesn't want to send the pile through the sorter again because it could tangle the equipment again. So, the entire pile gets thrown out.
Finally, with global recycling rates increasing, companies that turn the recycled material into new products look for the purest materials posible. One plastic bag that ends up in a bundle of paper can cause the recycler to throw out the entire bale.
During the last legislative session, Senate Bill 1465 aimed to preemptively block Norman from doing something about the city’s plastic bag recycling and environmental issues. State Sen. James Leewright, R-Bristow, introduced the legislation that would have prevented municipalities from prohibiting or placing a fee on so-called “auxiliary containers,” which would include plastic bags and styrofoam cups.
Despite calls for local control, the proposal passed out of the state Senate 33-5. The House General Government Oversight and Accountability Committee sent the bill to the state House of Representatives on a 5-4 party line vote. However, the bill was never heard by the entire House, so it died.
A Possible Solution
With Leewright’s bill dead for this legislative session, Councilwoman Breea Clark says now is the time to act in order to help solve the problems at the recycling facility, before the state legislature has time to bring the measure up again.
“One of the arguments that I had heard from Sen. Leewright was that Senate Bill 1465 was pro-business because it’s too hard to have communities handling plastic bags in different ways throughout the state,” Clark said. “But if you want to talk about being pro-business, this business is suffering because of plastic bags.”
Clark says plastic bags go beyond causing a nuisance for recycling facilities. She says they cause environmental issues, too.
Some estimates say it could take up to 1,000 years for plastic bags to break down in landfills. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says since plastic bags have only been widely used since the 1970s, the agency is not sure how long it takes for a bag to biodegrade.
“It's a health and safety issue because they end up not only stuck in our trees and our fences. Everybody's seen that, but they also end up in Lake Thunderbird, which is our main source of drinking water,” Clark said.
City councilmembers are still exploring possible solutions to reduce the use of plastic bags, but one proposal in Boulder, Colorado has stuck out to Clark. She says the five-cent-per-bag fee could serve as a model for Norman.
“The aspects that I like about that one is that it’s a fee that’s split between the business, to help cover the cost of signage and training, and the city, which they use for environmental educational policies,” Clark said.
Clark says a proposal could include an exemption for low-income families. But, she admits it would take time for Norman residents to get used to the change.
Many shoppers are not enthusiastic about the idea of a fee for plastic bags. Speaking outside of Sprouts on Main Street in Norman on a pleasant Sunday afternoon, Norman resident Lynn Snope says it’s not the city's place to discourage bag use.
“I think they should keep out of it. I think, let's keep things simple. No more red tape and hoops to jump through,” Snope said.
To Breea Clark, the environmental concerns and the problems at recycling facilities will eventually lead to plastic bags fading into the past.
“Other countries have been doing this for years, cities across the nation have been doing this for years and the recycling company agreed, that’s the general direction we are moving in. We’ve got to get rid of these bags,”Clark said.
Both the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce and the Norman Chamber of Commerce say it’s too early to comment on the proposal. The Oklahoma Grocers Association and Sen. James Leewright did not respond to requests for an interview.
Clark hopes a city committee will take on the plastic bag issue in the next few months, to eventually get a proposal before the City Council. She says council action might not even include a fee, but she says something has to be done.
“I think it’s an easy step the city of Norman can take to continue to be a leader in recycling policies in the state of Oklahoma,” Clark said.