May 4, 2016

Plastic Bag Recycling Program Shows Encouraging Results

In the six months since Sustainable Princeton, the Princeton Merchants Association and McCaffrey’s Market began a plastic bag recycling program, seven tons of plastic has been diverted from being dumped in landfills. This statistic was among several delivered to Princeton Council at its April 25 meeting during a report on the “Learn Your ABC’s” bring-your-own bag campaign that was launched to reduce the number of single-use disposable bags distributed in Princeton.

The idea is to divert plastic packaging films and single-use plastic bags from the landfill. At McCaffrey’s, there was a 10 percent increase in bag refunds during the first three months of the campaign compared to the same period in 2014, store director Lou Campo told the governing body. The store purchased 94,000 less single-use plastic bags in the period between September to December 2015, as compared to the same time span the year before.

McCaffrey’s, which has been collecting and recycling from customers and back-of-house operations for several years, is one of 13 locations in town that collect plastic packaging film and bags. In addition to the market, stores include the Whole Earth Center, the Princeton University Store, Terhune Orchards, and the Princeton Farmers’ Market (Thursdays in Hinds Plaza). Municipal locations are 400 Witherspoon Street, 1 Monument Drive, 303 John Street and the River Road Convenience Center. Princeton Senior Resource Center, Mercer Street Friends in Trenton, The Jewish Center of Princeton, and Littlebrook Elementary School are the other sites.

In addition to supermarket bags, several other types of plastic bags and films can be recycled including newspaper, bread, food storage, ice, pellet, produce, dry cleaning, and salt bags; wraps for napkins, paper towels, bathroom tissue and diapers; cereal box liners; plastic wraps that encase bottled beverages; and bubble wrap.

The program urges merchants to ask patrons if they have brought their own bags, and if they need a bag, before offering them one. Once collected, the bags and films are taken to McCaffrey’s by staff and volunteers, counted and loaded onto trucks. The materials are shipped to Trex, a Virginia-based company that recycles them into decking lumber. The lumber is then sold at major retailers.

“We’re encouraging people to do the right thing,” said John Marshall, president of the Princeton Merchants Association.

Plans for expanding the campaign call for more locations for dropping off bags, work with the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce to increase awareness, and a free outdoor bench to be donated by Trex for Community Park Pool.

“The first step of the program is to encourage the reduction,” Christine Symington, Sustainable Princeton’s Energy Director, said this week. “The campaign will increase its impact by having more stores encourage the use of reusable bags through incentives like a bag refund, or just by asking people if they need a bag. We want every merchant in town to help to reduce the consumption.”

Those behind the campaign have learned that a lot of what is getting recycled by merchants are plastic films that are used in the back of the stores. “So if more were able to collect that and bring it to McCaffrey’s, then it wouldn’t have to be thrown to the landfill,” Ms. Symington said.

The community’s response to the program is encouraging. “I think it’s a good trend,” Ms. Symington said. “It seems like the campaign has had an impact, with the reduction aspect. At least at McCaffrey’s, there seems to be a positive trend. I think we can be proud of the numbers we’ve seen so far.”