Public education and plastic bag bans at consumer recycling sites


  • John D. Atkinson.
    John D. Atkinson, PhD
    PhD, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

    233 Jarvis Hall

    Phone: (716) 645-4001

    Scott and Coleen Stevens Chair in Engineering Sustainability
    Associate Professor
    Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering
    School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
    Director, Graduate studies, Environmental and Water Resources Engineering
    Director, Engineering Science MS: Focus on Engineering Sustainability
    Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering
    School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
  • Amit Goyal.
    Amit Goyal, PhD
    PhD, University of Rochester, 1991

    317 Hochstetter Hall

    Phone: (716) 645-5920

    SUNY Empire Innovation Professor
    SUNY Distinguished Professor
    Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering
    School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
    Director, UB Initiative on Plastics Recycling and Innovation, a NYS Center of Excellence (April 2022 – to date)
    University at Buffalo
    Founding Director, The RENEW Institute (Jan 2015-July 2021)
    University at Buffalo

External Collaborators: New York's Environmental Protection Fund and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, Austin Izzo, alumnus (MS '20, BS '19) and Jenna Meert, alumna (MS '21).

Project description

Several different plastic items, including water and pill bottles, gloves and sheets, lay in a messy pile.

The aim of this study, which states that reducing society’s reliance on single-use plastics has clear environmental benefits, is to examine and help improve recycling efforts. The study details the composition of retail return recycling streams before and after the implementation of New York's plastic bag ban, approved in 2019.

Before the ban, the most common post-consumer film returned for recycling was grocery and retail bags. However, retail return recycling depots, often located in grocery store entrances, also allow customers to drop off other polyethylene-based film-materials (PE). In fact, the New York State bag ban requires stores to continue collecting these materials even though they can no longer distribute plastic bags.

UB researchers collaborated with two Western New York grocery stores to sort and quantify returned materials before and after the plastic bag ban. Contamination rates increase 1.4 to 2.8 times. The increase adds to transportation costs and complicates the process of reclaiming these recycled materials. 

On average, miseducation about which materials are allowed in retail recycling drop-offs — and which ones are not — accounted for 87% of the total contamination. In other words, people deposit incorrect or unacceptable plastic items.

Helping people learn more about this particular recycling process should be part of any policy on plastic bags, Atkinson says.