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Is Hefty EnergyBag Recycling Worth It?

In previous musings, we talked about items accepted in your curbside recycling bin and what to do with the items that aren’t. But, there’s one more program for your hard-to-recycle plastics, and Georgia is one of the 3 states participating in it. That’s the Hefty EnergyBag program, and we’re going to discuss if it’s worth it.

The Hefty EnergyBag program was designed to accompany your curbside recycling bin by accepting hard-to-recycle plastics that are of course as always, clean, dry, and placed into one of their orange bags. Most of your “wishcycling,” that isn’t accepted in your curbside bin, can be placed in this orange Hefty bag. The accepted items are plastics #4 – #6, stretchy plastics such as grocery bags, crunchy packaging such as grape bags, plastic dinnerware like straws, stirrers, and utensils, and foam packaging from eggs and take-out. Visit Hefty’s website for a comprehensive list. 

Items Accepted with the Hefty EnergyBag programPhoto from @livethriveatl

Currently, in Idaho, these orange hefty bags are processed into biofuels that replace coal in cement manufacturing facilities. In other locations, they are made into diesel by the process of pyrolysis, which is incineration in the absence of oxygen. Hefty states that bags collected in this program can also be processed into new plastic materials and used in building products such as concrete blocks and plastic lumber. In Atlanta, the orange bags end up locally at Nexus Fuels.

In a 2021 Article that interviewed the CEO of Nexus Fuels, Jeff Gold, Jeff explains that materials are broken down during pyrolysis into oil and wax. This process produces char and a non-condensable gas as byproducts. The char ends up as waste, but the non-condensable gas is burned to generate heat for the reaction. The oil and wax are then sold to Shell and Chevron Phillips Chemical which claim to turn it into new plastics. Their goal is to be able to say that these new plastics were made with recycled materials. Jeff does mention that compared to the feedstock they process, the materials from the Hefty EnergyBag program are a “drop in the bucket.”

Another thing Jeff mentioned was that at first, the orange bags came directly to Nexus Fuels. However, due to extremely high levels of contamination with items such as metals, aluminum-lined bags, PET bottles, PVC items, paper, and completely absurd items like shoes and clothing, they had to utilize a middle man, a materials recovery facility, to separate the items. This facility is operated by West Rock, which has an employee open the bags and remove obvious contaminants. 

This is why it’s extremely important to remember that the orange bags are only meant to compliment your curbside recycling bin. They are not meant for you to throw everything in them. That means keep recycling the fab 5 in your curbside bin, and keep the mixed paper, cardboard, aluminum and metals, plastics #1 and # 2, glass, and anything with an aluminized lining out of the orange bags. Excessive contamination can cause downstream processors to discontinue accepting these materials. 

The program initiated from a partnership between Dow Chemical, Reynolds Consumer Products, and Keep America Beautiful in 2014 but launched in Georgia in 2018 after receiving a Grant from Dow. However, activist groups such as the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, GAIA, criticize it as a “greenwashing stunt” that collects plastics to burn and calls it “recycling.” GAIA argues that waste-to-energy processes “undermine true sustainability goals” by encouraging companies and consumers to proceed with their current rate of manufacturing and using plastics instead of reducing them with the thought that they are being recycled. Others also argue that removing these plastics from the stream will discourage the development of their mechanical and non-energy recycling solutions.  

All good intentions aside, one might raise an eyebrow after seeing that Hefty’s website states that “plastic waste is more valuable than you think” and Dow makes a “Keeping Plastic Valuable” statement on their website.

At first glance, one might find this program worth the cost of the bags they have to purchase, which start at $8.99 for a 26-count box at Kroger, $9.99 at Target, and $21.99 for a 2-pack on hefty.com which includes shipping. On second glance, putting plastic in more plastic offers us a convenience, like the use of plastics themselves. Drop the accepted items in a bag, leave the bag in your curbside bin, and don’t leave your home. But curbside pickup is currently only offered in 1 out of the 4 participating Georgia Counties, Cobb.  In Cherokee, Gwinnett, and Fulton Counties the bags must be dropped off at designated locations. 

For residents of Cobb, Cherokee, and Gwinnett, whose recycling centers don’t take the majority of items accepted in Hefty bags, this is a solution to keep hard-to-recycle plastics out of the landfill. For residents of Atlanta that live near the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials, which also happens to be the drop-off location, it becomes an easy out, as a one-and-done drop-off to separating plastics. The few items that are accepted in orange Hefty bags and not at CHaRM are single-use utensils, dinnerware, and crunchy packaging. You can still collect these and separate them to put in CHaRM’s communal Hefty EnergyBag located in Plasticville. 

Recycling plastic packaging at CHaRMPhoto from @livethriveatl

Overall the Hefty energy bag is a start to keep waste out of landfills for communities that don’t have access to recycling centers such as CHaRM. It also offers a solution to recycle rarely accepted crunchy packaging and single-use dinnerware. However, at the end of the day, it should be used sparingly as an occasional convenience for a special event instead of encouragement for constant use of plastic utensils. While turning these plastics into fuel is better than directing them to the landfill, it should not prevent nor discourage future sustainability efforts for recycling and zero waste.

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