Film plastics: The scourge of curbside recycling    

Sometimes, it is easier to focus on the good vs. bad. With that in mind, we start this article with this:

The only things that do go into your curbside recycling cart are empty bottles, jars, jugs and tubs made of metal, plastic and glass from the kitchen, laundry and bath. Paper and flattened cardboard. That’s it, nothing else.

But now, we must address the bad.

The No. 1 problem in Newburyport’s recycling carts is plastic bags and other forms of film plastics. Not only is it the top contaminant but it is also the bane of our collector and processor due to the issues it causes their equipment and the safety hazard it poses to workers.

No film plastics of any sort, regardless of any “recyclable” designation, are permitted in curbside carts. Certain types of film plastic, including grocery bags, shrink wrap from paper goods (paper towels, napkins, toilet paper) and flats of bottled water, newspaper bags, dry cleaning bags, and most postage bags (plastic bags used to deliver mail-order items) can all be recycled only at Market Basket or Shaw’s.

We know it is confusing that many companies put the recycling symbol on their Styrofoam, bags and packaging pouches, but their packaging is not recyclable in your curbside cart, and can cause damage to collection and sorting equipment.

While we used to advise residents to put overflow recycling in clear plastic bags, this is no longer accepted by the recycling industry. Again, it is a hazard to workers and machinery, as well as a potential fine to Newburyport.

An example of this that we see frequently is the sale of plastic bags marketed as “recycling bags,” usually tinted blue. We find way too many recycling carts filled with excellent recycling materials – but all encased in one of these translucent bags.

These full bags just end up in the trash and cost Newburyport money in fines and fees. Despite numerous attempts to persuade manufacturers and our local supermarkets of the dangers and misleading use of these items, they are still on our store shelves and causing havoc for our recycling stream by confusing residents. If you feel you must bag your recycling, please use paper bags.

A new menace to recycling right is insulated packing material such as used by online food delivery companies such as Misfits Market. We see lots of this type of packing wrap in recycling bins and understand why – it says it is curbside recyclable! It is not!

In fact, after trying to work with this particular company on this issue, we have created a petition to raise awareness and persuade them to stop this labeling, which endangers workers, costs the city and the industry wasted money, and creates confusion for residents. If you would like to sign, please visit this site.

Other film plastics that seem to trick their way into our recycling carts and cause havoc? Dry cleaning bags, “air pillows” used as protective packaging, bubble wrap, produce bags, chip or snack bags, frozen food bags, tamper bands (the plastic wrap to seal ice cream containers and vitamins, aspirin, etc.), scraps of boat wrap, and juice pouches. 

So how do you know how thick a plastic must be to put in recycling carts? The easiest way: If it is a bottle, jar, jug or tub, it goes in the curbside recycling bin. If it is a pouch, packing/packaging wrap or anything else that doesn’t maintain its same shape and “stand up” with or without its product inside, it belongs in the trash.

A firm plastic container from the kitchen, bath or laundry that maintains its shape and stands when empty is a valuable resource in the recycling bin.

We are here to help. If you have any questions about what goes where and other ways you can help Newburyport manage its environmental impact and tax dollars, please let us know with an email to

Or check the website at

More information is available from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s Recyclopedia:

Christin Walth is a member of Newburyport's Toward Zero Waste Committee.

Editor's note: This version of the column has the correct link to sign the petition.

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