That’s a wrap: Students keep ton of plastic bags out of waste stream

top-plastic-film-recycleIt hasn’t even been on campus for a year, but the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay plastic film recycling program has already processed the equivalent of nearly one million plastic bags.

“We’ve recycled somewhere between 1800 and 2200 pounds of plastic film,” said former student intern Matthew Malcore. “Not all of it has been just plastic bags, but assuming the weight of a plastic bag is 5.5 grams, this equals the weight of between 816,000 and 997,900 plastic bags. Approaching the weight of one million plastic bags in under a year, just at a community level. That is pretty amazing to me,” Malcore said.

The goal of the plastic film recycling program is to keep plastic films, such as grocery bags and pallet wrap, from the waste stream. When not collected separately, the films can pose problems. If thrown into the garbage can, the plastic film would end up in a landfill, but attempting to recycle it along with plastic or glass containers and paper, could clog the sorting machines at the recycling facility, which are typically designed to handle rigid materials.

“Aware of this problem, we were searching for a better solution,” said Felix Pohl, sustainability communications manager. “If we collect plastic films separately, they do not pose a problem in the waste stream and furthermore the material can be re-purposed by specialized recycling companies.”

In order to accomplish this, an Environmental Management and Business Institute (EMBI) intern took on the job.

“One of our former interns in the EMBI internship program had made contact with Zeus Recycling from Sheboygan regarding plastic film recycling and wondered if EMBI could assist in providing intern support to Zeus in order to launch a pilot program on plastic film recycling here on campus,” said John Arendt, EMBI Associate Director. “Utilizing the Great Lakes Internship Initiative grant, EMBI offered student Matthew Malcore to provide Zeus with that help to begin the plastic film pilot.”

The program officially began on March 1, 2014, when 12 drop-off boxes, provided by Green Bay Packaging, were placed in various locations around campus, including 10 in public areas and two in maintenance areas.

“As we essentially started the program without any particular funding, we utilized donated cardboard containers and mounted self-made signs on them,” said Pohl.

story-plastic-filmAs the student intern, Malcore (pictured at left) was in charge of collecting the plastic film at each of the collection points, sorting, and baling the material. Beginning halfway through the fall 2014 semester, Malcore has been helping to transfer the management of the program to the Public and Environmental Affairs Council (PEAC).

“A significant part of our outreach was to involve the students from PEAC, a great student organization bringing together students from all over campus who share a genuine concern for how we build our future in the face of environmental challenges,” said Pohl.

Malcore, a member of PEAC, will be helping the organization to continue the program.

“As PEAC is now the group responsible for the program, I will be continuously training members on how to collect, differentiate and bale the plastic,” said Malcore.

The program was implemented October of 2014, starting with bins placed in the laundry rooms of residence halls.

“Some bins were packed full after the first week and others took a bit longer to fill,” said Kayla Billet, Residence Life Eco-intern and Co-leader of the Residence Green Life Committee, “The committee members then bring the collected plastic film to the larger collection box in the Community Center. From there the organization PEAC does the collecting and packaging for further recycling.”

The program’s popularity has spread past the boundaries of campus as well.

“Currently, the popularity of plastic film is growing throughout the state, said Arendt, “We have seen other campuses start programs, but UW-Green Bay was the first. K-12 schools are taking on recycling, and the Wisconsin DNR is promoting the program.”

Plastic film recycling programs are a step in the right direction, but according to Malcore, eliminating all use of these plastics is the best solution.

“Single-use plastics have become a growing problem, especially as pollutants of the oceans,” said Malcore, “Using cloth bags instead of plastic bags and re-using water bottles instead of purchasing new ones constantly is always preferable to using single-use plastics. Even though more of the single-use plastics, such as plastic bags, increases the amount of material we reclaim and technically makes the program more profitable, PEAC is an environmental organization and the purpose of both the organization and the program is to reduce environmental impact.”

In the coming months, the program will start diverting the plastic film to TREX Decking in order for the film to find new life in the form of park benches and decks.

“This program provides the opportunity for students, faculty, and staff to first think about plastic film not as waste but as a resource and to actively divert it from the landfill,” said Arendt, “This is education in action.”
Story by Katelyn Staaben, editorial intern, Marketing and University Communication