Guest column

Yet another reason to loathe plastic bags

The number one thing that consumers can remember when it comes to recycling is that thin, pliable plastic should be excluded from standard blue recycling bins. Photos by welcomia/Canva.

As waste-to-energy gains a foothold in the energy transition, trash's more palatable cousin, recycling, sits just close enough for deeper inspection. Plastic, by and large, one of the most loved and loathed petroleum by-products, is often singled out as the most nefarious contributor to our declining climate.

With significant efforts underway to reduce the volume of single-use plastic while reusing or repurposing stronger plastics, let us turn attention to the third action in the timeless mantra–recycling.

Over the last few decades, we have embraced recycling globally, assured in our noble commitment to derive further utility out of items that no longer serve an immediate purpose from our unique perspective.

However, the act of recycling still closely resembles taking out the trash. We place items deemed worthy of secondary use into large, usually plastic, bins for carting far away from the rest of the things that still provide utility to our personal household or place of business.

For the most part, simply believing that there could or should be further utility of an item is criterion enough to warrant placement in the exalted blue bin. The small hit of dopamine elicited from the satisfaction that we are “doing our part” is just strong enough to reinforce the idea that we have also “done enough.”

But according to Vu Nguyen, director of corporate development and innovation, Waste Management, one of Houston’s leading trash, recycling, and environmental services companies, there remains one elusive challenge: the plastic bag.

The plastic bag proves problematic for a multitude of reasons, not least because of its role in ruining literally every.other.recyling.effort.ever. On the whole, we have been blissfully ignorant of the recycling process, and even more so of how much our good intentions to reuse and recycle are thwarting the same process for so many other reusable materials.

“The number one thing that consumers can remember when it comes to recycling is that thin, pliable plastic [like] bags and wrappers should be firmly excluded from standard blue recycling bins,” Nguyen shared at a Houston Tech Rodeo event earlier this spring.

After collection, simple but effective mechanisms sort items delivered to a recycling facility. Individuals pick through discarded materials placed on conveyor belts before the remaining items work their way through heavy magnets that extract useful metals while bursts of air pressure push lightweight items like paper away from heavier items like glass.

Plastic bags, including the lovely little blue ones so many of us like to purchase to fill our quaint non-standard recycling bins, tangle up in these conveyor belts, causing shutdowns to unravel them from materials otherwise well-suited for these sorting efforts. Downtime on the sorting line can get expensive, so much so that many recycling facilities often turn away entire trucks filled with potentially reusable items if even a single plastic bag is discovered inside.

Consider this the start of a public service announcement campaign to raise awareness of that simple fact.

Yasser Brenes, area president – south for Republic Services, echoes this sentiment as he shares a few tips and reminders with EnergyCapitalHTX.

  • Know What to Throw: Educate yourself on what can and cannot go inside your recycling bin. Focus on only recycling rigid plastic containers such as bottles, jugs and tubs, metal food and beverage containers, glass bottles and jars, paper and cardboard. Don’t be a wish-cycler, never throw items in your recycling bin if you are unsure if they can be recycled or not.
  • Empty, Clean, Dry: Recyclables should be rinsed free of residual food and liquid. If recyclables are not empty, clean and dry the residual food or liquid could contaminate other more fragile recyclables, like paper and cardboard, and require them to be thrown away.
  • Don’t Bag It: Recyclables should always be placed loose inside your recycling bin. Flexible plastics, such as grocery bags, wrap and tangle around the sorting equipment and should never be placed in your recycling bin.

That’s not to say that plastic bags and wrappers cannot be recycled at all; on the contrary, they absolutely can. The mechanisms for sorting them from other materials like paper, aluminum, glass, and heavy plastics just aren’t quite mature enough… yet.


Lindsey Ferrell is a contributing writer to EnergyCapitalHTX and founder of Guerrella & Co.

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A View From HETI

A View From UH

A Rice University professor studied the Earth's carbon cycle in the Rio Madre de Dios to shed light on current climate conditions. Photo courtesy of Mark Torres/Rice University

Carbon cycles through Earth, its inhabitants, and its atmosphere on a regular basis, but not much research has been done on that process and qualifying it — until now.

In a recent study of a river system extending from the Peruvian Andes to the Amazon floodplains, Rice University’s Mark Torres and collaborators from five institutions proved that that high rates of carbon breakdown persist from mountaintop to floodplain.

“The purpose of this research was to quantify the rate at which Earth naturally releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and find out whether this process varies across different geographic locations,” Torres says in a news release.

Torres published his findings in a study published in PNAS, explaining how they used rhenium — a silvery-gray, heavy transition metal — as a proxy for carbon. The research into the Earth’s natural, pre-anthropogenic carbon cycle stands to benefit humanity by providing valuable insight to current climate challenges.

“This research used a newly-developed technique pioneered by Robert Hilton and Mathieu Dellinger that relies on a trace element — rhenium — that’s incorporated in fossil organic matter,” Torres says. “As plankton die and sink to the bottom of the ocean, that dead carbon becomes chemically reactive in a way that adds rhenium to it.”

The research was done in the Rio Madre de Dios basin and supported by funding from a European Research Council Starting Grant, the European Union COFUND/Durham Junior Research Fellowship, and the National Science Foundation.

“I’m very excited about this tool,” Torres said. “Rice students have deployed this same method in our lab here, so now we can make this kind of measurement and apply it at other sites. In fact, as part of current research funded by the National Science Foundation, we are applying this technique in Southern California to learn how tectonics and climate influence the breakdown of fossil carbon.”

Torres also received a three-year grant from the Department of Energy to study soil for carbon storage earlier this year.

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