Left Holding the (Plastic) Bag

In theory, plastic bags can be recycled. The reality is a lot messier.


a halo of squawking seagulls rings the Sims Metal Management recycling center along the Hudson River in Jersey City. This is where all of New York City’s curbside recycling goes for processing—more than 240,000 tons annually. Though all the recyclables that come here have some resale value, some simply aren’t worth the effort. At the very bottom of the recycling food chain are plastic shopping bags—and the dreaded “trommel snake.”

Plastic bags, regardless of whether they’re stamped with a recycling symbol, are not welcomed by New York’s recycling program, and like most such facilities, Sims can’t handle them. The stringy sacks gum up the mechanical sorters known as trommels, causing several work stoppages daily. Workers must then climb into the sorting cylinder and hack away at the trommel snake—a twisted bundle of film plastic as long as 20 feet. It goes into the plant’s towering trash heap, part of the 3.8 million tons of plastic film that go to landfills every year. Sims salvages what it can, though a half-ton of dirty plastic bags is worth no more than $20.

New Yorkers use more than 1 billion plastic bags a year; just 1 percent are recycled or resold. (Nationwide, the figure is 9.1 percent.) Last year, both the city and the state started requiring large stores to collect used bags and sell them to reprocessors. But the new laws don’t discourage the use of bags and provide no incentive for consumers to bring them in, so most still end up in the trash—or, when well-meaning residents put them in their recycling bins, they wind up feeding the trommel snake.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate