Improperly recycled plastic bags jam up sorting machines

Updated: Jul. 12, 2019 at 9:00 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Supporters of single-use plastic bag bans implemented or being discussed across South Carolina believe limiting plastics would decrease litter and waste.

However, reducing plastic bag use could also make recycling more efficient in the Palmetto State. According to Brian Shea, plant manager at Sonoco, the plant spends 60 to 90 minutes a day removing plastic bags, garden hoses, clothes, and other contaminants at their Columbia sorting facility.

"It's draining,” Shea said. “It's effort to climb in and out of these screens on a daily basis, and it can really do some damage to the equipment and morale to the team."

The machines use gravity to sort different types of paper like newspaper, magazines, and office paper. However, other materials like plastic bags often get mixed in with people's recycling and get caught in the machines. When the bags and other materials like them build up it can stop the machine from working altogether.

On average, the plant completely shuts down all operations two to three times a day, but sometimes it's more detrimental to the workday.

"It could be anywhere from an immediate stop when we're not ready for it, to jamming up the screens where we have to stop all of our production to hop inside the screen for a couple hours at a time if it's bad enough," Shea explained.

Other contaminants range find from annoying to disgusting. The plant regularly pulls Christmas lights from the machines during the holiday season. During hunting season, they once found a deer carcass in their machine.

Shea said he doesn't want to discourage recycling, but he wants to make sure people are recycling correctly.

"What they are putting in the bin and the plastic bags they’re putting them in really cause issues down the chain,” Shea said, “and we really want people to know do the right thing and take your bags to the right place where they came from and leave them out of the bin, that would save us a lot of trouble."

In addition to taking your plastic bags back to grocery stores, charities like Harvest Hope also accept used plastic bags.

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