Should plastic bags be recycled or banned?

shopping bags
CC BY 2.0 Flickr User Aaron Tango Tang

California has become an interesting test-case for both approaches to one plastic problem.

Back in 2006, California passed a law that mandated a system for recycling plastic shopping bags. Today, supermarkets and other large stores have receptacles where plastic bags can be returned for recycling.

However, a recent report from the Associated Press found that it's difficult to measure how successful this program has been. They found that the data collected by the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery has not been analyzed since 2009, when about 3 percent of bags made it to recycling. The department did provide reporters with the raw data:

"Retailers reported purchasing 62.3 million pounds of bags in 2012, down from 107.4 million in 2008. They reported 4 million pounds of bags and 27 million pounds of mixed bags and plastic film were returned for recycling in 2012.
But those figures don't reveal how many bags were recycled. A study by California State University, Sacramento, which calculated previous recycling rates, showed the store-submitted totals for collected bags often included other materials. Without verifying the stores' totals, it's impossible to say how much was from bags, plastic film or general garbage."

Spokesman Mark Oldfield said the recycling department doesn't have enough funding to do the proper analysis.

The recycling program stands in contrast to plastic bag bans, which have been passed in over 80 California cities and municipalities. Los Angeles will have a ban going into effect in January.

Eric Bradley, reporting for the Press-Telegram, spoke with Environmental Services Bureau Manager Jim Kuhl about the success of Long Beach's ban. Kuhl says that the community now has 100 percent compliance, and has only had one infraction since the ban was introduced two years ago.
“There was really no push-back on it,” Kuhl said of the ban that went into effect Aug. 1, 2011, for large retailers and five months later for smaller shops. “I believe the grocers and the retailers realize the public would like to see a reduction in plastic bags.”

It's unfortunate that we don't have a quantifiable idea of how well the recycling program is working. On one hand, we should have a system to manage all of the plastic bags that are already out there, and it would be good to keep them out of landfills and off the landscape. On the other hand, recycling does come with embedded energy costs that can be avoided altogether by choosing a re-usable shopping bag–and bans are proving to be the best way to get everyone on board.

Should plastic bags be recycled or banned?
California has become an interesting test-case for both approaches to one plastic problem.