I've spent all morning trying to track down trash—namely, the single use plastic bags that Portland is considering banning.

The American Chemistry Council (which represents the plastics companies that make the likely-to-be-blacklisted bags) fights bag bans across the country by saying that cities should focus on recycling the bags instead of banning them outright. Okay. So is recycling plastic bags actually a good option for Portland?

Stats from local plastics recyclers point to one answer: HELL NO.

These gum up machines. The bags, not the hippies.
  • These gum up machines. The bags, not the hippies.

When you put a plastic bag into your curbside recycling bin, it's picked up by a hauler (if you live in inner SE or NE, for example, it's Cloudburst Recycling) and the goods are taken to a sorting company like Far West Fibers, who organize all the mixed recyclables into like groups and then ship them out to the companies who actually melt, chop or shred the trash into new material. Just a note for the curious: About 20 percent of Far West Fiber's plastic goes to China, meaning your orange juice bottle could soon be reincarnated as a sexy anime action figure.

Far West Fiber's VP of Business Operations Jeff Murray says that plastic bags are a plague in the recycling business. They plastic bags get stuck in their giant sorting machine, gumming up the works so bad that a four to six crew person has to completely stop the machine and clean it out four times a day. Each cleaning takes half an hour, bringing the total cost of cleaning plastic bags out of the machine to $60,000 a month.

More info on this—plus, what Murray can tell about our lives by sorting our trash—below the cut.

National recycling company SP Recycling reports similarly insane costs in this presentation (pdf), reporting that though plastic bags are .1 percent of the material coming into their recyclers, they suck away 20-30 percent of labor costs.

The reason you should care about the high cost of plastic bag recycling is that the pricetag is passed along to consumers. The recycling companies who shell $30-60,000 a month to recycle the bags set rates for the local haulers who in turn set the rates for how much they charge each Portlander for curbside pickup.

I asked Murray if he'd be in favor of a plastic bag ban, then, to save on his costs. He pitched two alternate ideas: either a statewide ban, so that the material his company gets from Salem and Bend is consistent with Portland's trash, or a rule that stores could not give out plastic bags unless they had a program in the store to recycle them. The plastic bags Murray gets from official recycling depots are much easier to recycle, since the bags are already sorted out (rather than mixed in with all the other curbside stuff).

But if there's a statewide ban, I asked Murray, wouldn't that cut into your business?

"No, we'll just adapt," says Murray. Right now, they're getting into the next big thing: carpet recycling.

Meanwhile, Murray's job of sorting through Portland's trash gives him and the Far West Fibers crew an interesting glimpse of life in our city.

Two things Murray can determine from our trash:
We're eating at home more often. The recession has led to more tin cans and paper from boxed meals in the recycling mix.
We're reading less on paper. Two years ago, 70 percent of what came into Far West Fibers was newsprint, magazines and high grade paper. Now that's down to 50 percent.