By Angela Porta and Noelle Bowman, Co-Chairs of the Food Waste & Packaging Policy Action Team
Single-use plastic bags and plastic wrap are the most ubiquitous forms of food packaging waste. It is estimated that “the average American family uses 1,500 single-use plastic bags each year”. These lightweight plastics are prone to entering the environment – most of us have seen or heard one rustling in a nearby tree or floating down the Huron River. Their fate as litter is not always intentional; often times these plastics escape from garbage cans, garbage trucks, and even landfills. Their vulnerability to wind transport leads them to dance around the landscape until they reach their usual final resting place in a body of water. Beyond being an eyesore, these plastics are harmful to wildlife in a number of ways from tangling them up to ending up in their bellies.
In addition to the environmental harm these plastics cause, they have also become extremely problematic in recycling facilities. Many people incorrectly place these “soft” plastics in their curbside recycling bins. Most curbside recycling programs cannot accept plastic bags because they jam up gears in the recycling sorting facility. This leads to higher costs for recycling and dangerous conditions for workers who have to cut the bags out of equipment.
In June 2016, in an effort to reduce plastic bag waste and encourage consumer re-use, Washtenaw County adopted Michigan’s first single-use carryout bag ordinance, calling for a 10-cent eco-fee for each disposable bag (plastic and paper), distributed. The Food Waste & Packaging Policy Action Team of the Washtenaw County Food Policy Council advocated this policy. Washtenaw County’s ordinance was scheduled to go into effect on Earth Day (April 22) 2017. However, in December 2016, the State of Michigan approved Public Act 389, which preempts local Michigan communities from regulating the use or distribution of all “auxiliary containers,” including plastic bags and any other carryout container. In April 2018, State Rep. Robert Wittenburg (D-Huntington Woods) introduced House Bill 5871 that seeks to repeal Public Act 389 of 2016.
In lieu of implementing policy to solve the “plastic bag problem,”, Recycle Ann Arbor is developing a voluntary campaign to educate residents of Washtenaw County on how to effectively reduce, reuse, and recycle plastic bags and other plastic wrap. The Food Waste & Packaging Policy Action Team is working with Recycle Ann Arbor to plan and support the upcoming campaign that will launch Fall 2018. A large part of the campaign will be focused around the education and expansion of proper recycling of plastic bags and plastic wrap. Several large retail stores have plastic bag recycling receptacles, but these are not always convenient destinations for people. Moreover, the large scope of what can be accepted in the plastic bag recycling receptacles is widely unknown. Recycle Ann Arbor plans to facilitate the expansion of uniform recycling receptacles for plastic bags and wrap to convenient places such as libraries, churches, and schools. In addition, the campaign will educate residents about the many types of plastic wrap that are able to be recovered in the receptacles. The overall goal is to encourage residents to reduce plastic bag and plastic wrap consumption where they can, reuse what they do have, and recycle as much as possible of what is left.
 “An Analysis of the Impact of Single-Use Plastic Bags.” New York State Plastic Bag Task Force. January 13, 2018. https://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/materials_minerals_pdf/dplasticbagreport2017.pdf