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About 40 weeks ago I stepped into my local grocery store to see what I could buy after committing to a year of being trash-free.  When I looked around, my heart sank.  Other than the liberated produce section –  all I saw was food and dried goods trapped in plastic packaging.   Even the glass containers had wraps of “safety” plastic around their lids.  So, I did what I had to do, I stopped buying a lot of things at the grocery store and at Costco.  I said good-bye to tortillas, packaged bread, chips, cliff bars, boxes of cereal, Tasty Bites, Amy’s yummy frozen foods, packaged trail mix, bags of Ghirardelli chocolate squares, packaged cheese and deli meat, cottage cheese, yogurt, toilet paper in plastic wrap…

After I got the hang of living without these used-to-be staples in my life, it actually wasn’t that bad.   I learned to enjoy only buying items fresh or in bulk, and making things from scratch, like granola bars and corn tortillas.  I felt good that I could compost the wrapper that covers my toilet paper and know which stores sell fresh, non-packaged bread.  I learned to take pride in living a “simpler,” plastic packaging-free life and all the challenges that came with it.

Then a couple of weeks ago, I walked into Times Supermarket in Kaneohe and I saw something that could make my trash-free experiment a little less challenging – a plastic bag recycling container that accepted a lot more than just grocery bags.

Plastic bag recycling container

Plastic Bag Recycling Container like no other

Most stores have a place where you can recycle your grocery bags.  The Safeway in Kailua has one, and so does the Foodland.

Recycling container at Foodland, Kailua

Recycling container at Foodland, Kailua

But these other containers have no specific directions that define exactly what kinds of plastic bags you can put in the containers, so I have always assumed that they only accept single use grocery bags and maybe produce bags.  This plastic bag container at Times was different.  It said I could recycle a lot more than just grocery bags.

Accepted plastics include...not just grocery bags!

It wasn’t shocking that “retail” and “drug store” bags were on the list.  And I have  been dumping newspaper bags in the Safeway plastic bag recycling containers for a while now.  However, if I ever dry-clean any clothes, it is good to know that I can recycle the plastic in this container.  The biggest news?  These bins accept ALL CLEAN bags labeled #2 and #4!  I immediately went into Times to see what I could safely add to a trash-free shopping list.  I didn’t find any #2 plastic bags, but I found these #4’s:

Portugese sweet bread

Portuguese sweet bread

Toilet paper

Toilet paper

Red beans

Red beans

Corn tortillas

Corn tortillas

With this new recycling revelation and my photographic proof, I bought the bag of corn tortillas (I had been craving them and too lazy to make them from scratch) and left.  I went home and visited the www.plasticbagrecycling.org site from the recycling container sign.  There I found an even longer list of materials accepted in this magic plastic recycling bin:

  • newspaper bags
  • dry cleaning bags
  • bread bags
  • produce bags
  • toilet paper, napkin, and paper towel wraps
  • furniture wrap
  • electronic wrap
  • plastic retail bags (hard plastic and string handles removed)
  • grocery bag
  • plastic food storage bags (clean and dry) – (e.g. Ziploc® Bags)
  • plastic cereal box liners (if it tears like paper do not include)
  • Tyvek(no glue, labels, other material)
  • diaper wrap (packaging)
  • plastic shipping envelopes (no bubble wrap/remove labels)
  • case wrap (e.g., snacks, water bottles)
  • All clean, dry bags labeled #2 or #4

The website includes an option to put in a zip code to find out where these recycling containers are in your neighborhood.  It also mentions to call the store to verify acceptable materials before visiting the drop-off  location, however, after the experience I explain below, I am not sure how helpful such a phone call will be.

According to the list, JCPenny, Safeway, Wal-Mart, and Lowes are considered drop-off locations in Hawaii for this organization (where was Times?).  I called my local Safeway to see if I could put this list of plastics in their recycling bin and the people I talked to had no idea.  When I called their corporate office, the lucky woman who answered my phone call could not tell me what plastic items were acceptable in their Hawaii Safeway recycling bins, and recommended that I “just stick with grocery bags.”  The folks at the Wal-Mart said, “sure,” without thinking twice, and I have yet to contact JCPenny or Lowes.  For now, I will stick with Times in Kaneohe.

Despite this wonderful discovery, I have to wonder, is it a good thing that I can now purchase more things wrapped in plastic because I can recycle the packaging?   It will certainly make my life easier, and cheaper, if I can buy cereal and toilet paper at Costco again, and a loaf of bread at the supermarket.  On the other hand, if we want to get rid of single-use plastic bags, which I do support, promoting recycling of such material may weaken the argument that it needs to be banned.  And of course, there is all the recent research on plastics and what it may be doing to our health.

I think I will stick with the good `ole, blue triangle school of thought: reduce and reuse as much as possible first, then recycle as the last option.  And for doing such a good job, treat myself to a nice, warm corn tortilla.