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A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

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Febrary 28, 2015

Recycling Plastic Shopping Bags

Or, how to get rid of all those stupid bags without
sending them to the dump

Within the last few years the supermarkets within the City of Albany have been undergoing a great deal of turbulence, what with the arrival of a new grocery chain not too long ago and the current, almost frantic remodeling of one of the oldest and most established supermarkets. For most of the past 50 years we’ve seen grocery outlets, particularly the ones located downtown, close or pack up and move to the suburbs. But that trend has reversed itself, it appears that the big chains in particular are scrambling to catch the steadily increasing food dollars of the City of Albany consumer.

This is clearly a good sign, a positive indication of the City of Albany’s rising population and increasing economic vitality. The big supermarket chains are quite savvy about such things, their continued success depends upon guessing where the consumer money is located before their rivals do. And like retailers are fond of saying, location is everything. If the supermarket chains want to locate in Albany, they must have decided that Albany is the right place to make a profit.

Empty White Shelves At The Delaware Avenue Price Chopper Ready To Be Removed
Empty White Shelves At The Delaware Avenue Price Chopper Ready To Be Removed

So on a recent Saturday afternoon I drove around visiting supermarkets near downtown Albany during a light snowfall. My purpose was to look for plastic shopping bag recycling bins, to see which supermarkets had them and which did not. Also I was interested in how the supermarkets treated those bins, did they put them in accessible places, and perhaps find out if the supermarkets really did recycle plastic bags. Or did they just dump the barrels into the general trash destined for the Rapp Road “Landfill,” which is located in the Pine Bush in western Albany?

This is a matter of deep concern for me, I try to send as little household trash as possible to the dump. Every Sunday evening (the designated trash pickup day for our neighborhood) I put out on the curb in front of my house two blue recycling boxes which are usually full or mostly full of cans, bottles, papers and such. This is the bulk of our weekly waste, I’m proud of being able to do that.

Empty White Shelves At The Delaware Avenue Price Chopper Ready To Be Removed
Our Backyard Mulch Pile With Snow And Recent Additions

Sometime in the last decade I decided to start a mulch pile in our little backyard. This is nothing fancy, just a pile of household organic waste. By dumping banana peels and carrot shavings and those ghastly science projects sitting in the back of the refrigerator onto my pile, we’ve cut the amount of non-recyclable waste that we put on the curb by more than half. And hey, the squirrels gotta eat too, although they seem to prefer the neighborhood garbage cans to my pile.

As a result of this casual mulching, on Sunday night I normally put out only one very light partially filled garbage bag destined to be added to The Dump. It’s that bag which bothers me. It’s a bag mostly full of plastic shopping bags, wrappers and other filmy containers that are meant to be used exactly once but that the City will not take as recycling.

The Monday after my weekend tour of the supermarkets I asked Frank Zeoli, the Director of the City of Albany Department of General Services, why not. He assured me the City declined to pick up shopping bags not, as I have often heard, because the bags are too light and therefore unprofitable for the City’s recycling contractor, an outfit called Sierra Processing, to bother with. He explained:

The reason that we do not accept plastic bags is that the Single Stream Material Recovery Facility where we take our recyclables does not accept them. The plastic bags get wrapped around the various parts of their sorting equipment and cost them significant time and money to clear them away.

Frank Zeoli, Director City Of Albany DGS
Frank Zeoli, Director City Of Albany DGS

That is why way back in 2002 the country of Bangladesh, which is flat like Florida, banned plastic shopping bags, because the flimsy things tend to clog up their delicate drainage system and cause floods. According to recent reports their ban has not been very effective, but it is still in place. Since then other countries, such as China, Australia, Italy and South Africa have banned bags with much more success, primarily because of a disdain for discarding the bags after one use.

It does seem odd to me that the City’s recycling contractor cannot figure out how to handle the bags efficiently with a few tweaks of their existing technology. But I guess that the recyclers have little incentive to do that because of something else Mr. Zeoli told me that I was not aware of:

Since January 1, 2009 stores with 10,000 square feet of retail space, and chains which operate five or more stores with greater than 5,000 feet of retail space, and which provide plastic carry bags to customers are required to comply with the New York State Plastic Bag Reduction, Reuse and Recycling Law. The operator of a store shall establish an at-store recycling program that provides an opportunity for a customer of the store to return to the store clean plastic carryout bags and film plastic. Film plastic means uncontaminated non-rigid film plastic packaging products composed of plastic resins, which include but are not limited to, newspaper bags, dry cleaning bags, and shrink wrap. The stores can then consolidate large amounts of bags and film plastic into bales and ship the bales directly to companies that can recycle this plastic.

So retroactively my casual Saturday afternoon search for shopping bag recycling bins turned into a compliance inspection tour. What I found was that most of the stores that I visited had bag recycling cans available, but by the placement of those cans their compliance with the law, for most of them, appeared reluctant. At least they had cans, only one store that I visited did not have a can, or rather, after searching for a while inside and outside I couldn’t find it.

Fancy Recycling Machines Outdoors At The Shop Rite, But None Specifically For Shopping Bags
Fancy Recycling Machines Outdoors At The Shop Rite, But None Specifically For Shopping Bags

The offender is the new Shop Rite at Central Avenue and Watervliet Avenue. The grocery chain was around when I was a kid growing up in the southern part of the Hudson Valley, many a summer or weekend afternoon I would peddle my one speed bike about a mile or so to the Shop Rite Plaza out on the highway strip. We called it a supermarket and considered it enormous, today it would be called a mini-mart.

Until recently Shop Rite did not have any outlets in the Capital District until the first one opened on Nott Street in the suburb of Niskayuna in 2011. But I think it significant that the chain, which is in the process of opening more outlets in the rest of the Capital District suburbs, in 2012 opened their second local store well inside the City of Albany. It’s a big store with numerous amenities like those that are common in the suburbs but until recently have not been seen much inside Albany.

Walking around the Shop Rite inside and out I saw fancy can and bottle recycling machines and all sorts of dispensers including change counters and lottery peddlers. But no plastic bag recycling bin. I admit that I have no compelling reason for doing my shopping at this Shop Rite, but for that reason alone I probably won’t be spending much of my grocery cash at this den of anti-environmentalists who are defiantly sneering at The Law. So to speak.

Bag Recycling Can, Upper Madison Avenue Price Chopper
Bag Recycling Can, Upper Madison Avenue Price Chopper

Actually, I only recently discovered the existence of these bins at the two Price Choppers that I habitually visit, the one on upper Madison Avenue and the one closer to my home located on Delaware Avenue. Neither store encourages their customers to recycle their bags, at least not any more than the occasional self congratulatory bit of advertising about how “green” they are. To even find the barrels I had to ask several employees to help me locate them.

In both Price Choppers the cans are outside in or near the open unheated shelters where the return bottle crushing recycling machines are located. In the suburban stores the bottle machines (as they are commonly called) are usually conveniently located inside where it’s warm, but in all too many supermarkets in the City these machines are located outdoors away from the entrance. This makes recycling an unpleasant experience during weather like we’ve been having this winter, thus discouraging to the mildly environmental minded consumer who would like to do something or other now and then to save the Earth.

The unspoken reason for this is obvious. In the City of Albany the sort of people who collect returnable bottles generally do so out of economic necessity, thus they will seek out and use the machines no matter where they are located. We certainly wouldn’t want all these horrible lower class persons tramping through the actual store with their big bags and overloaded carts annoying the paying customers.

Bag Recycling Can, Delaware Avenue Price Chopper
Bag Recycling Can, Delaware Avenue Price Chopper

In both stores the bag recycling bins are shoved in a far corner of the unheated outdoor corral. Unless one is specifically looking for the cans they are easy to overlook because they resemble plain old everyday trash barrels, even though they are indeed plainly marked as to their intended function. At least Price Chopper does provide the barrels as they are supposed to, but do they really recycle the contents?

At one of the two stores I asked an employee that I know (I’m being intentionally vague because I don’t want to get this person in trouble) whether or not Price Chopper really does recycle these bags that I’ve been stuffing into those barrels. I was told by this regular eyewitness that yes indeed, the bags are turned into compact bales and loaded onto trucks by the same recyclers that take away the enormous loads of cardboard boxes discarded by the stores daily. As Mr. Zeoli indicated, if the bags are turned into bales then they are unlikely to clog up any of that sensitive machinery down at the plant.

Right now the two Price Choppers are undergoing massive renovations inside the stores and are making changes to their exteriors. Amazingly the stores are remaining open for business while the work is going on, with the physical changes happening through the night and the restocking of shelves during the day. It’s a massive undertaking that started in January and is, according to another employee I spoke to, going to continue right up until late summer.

Dismantled Checkout Counters At The Madison Price Chopper
Dismantled Checkout Counters At The Madison Price Chopper

The changes inside the store are happening very fast. One day last week I walked into the Upper Madison Chopper and was stunned to see about half of the interior of the store was blocked off by plywood walls. Customers wandered around these walls searching for relocated items, and I saw one long corridor along a row of shelves that was hemmed in so closely by a wall of plywood that I barely had room to pass. I joked that fat people could not buy toilet paper that day, but no one I said that to laughed.

Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera that day. But when I went back two days later the plywood walls were all gone like they’d never been, I’d missed my chance for some great photos. Instead some other parts of the store were walled off but not as spectacularly as that one day.

In these formerly walled off areas the old white shelves I’d been shopping off of for years were gone, replaced with brand new black shelves. This is the latest thing with all supermarkets, I’m told that black shelves make the items sitting on them more visible and more appealing than white shelves. This seems counterintuitive and I’m undecided on that, but I have to admit the new black shelving does look rather spiffy.

Temporary Wall Inside The Delaware Avenue Price Chopper (Photo E. Flett)
Temporary Wall Inside The Delaware Avenue Price Chopper (Photo E. Flett)

Also, when those big plywood walls were up in both stores, they were festooned everywhere with signs saying DANGER: ASBESTOS. This was rather alarming, asbestos is only dangerous when it is being disturbed such as when renovations like this are going on, and is especially dangerous when the air is dry like right now in cold winter. Again, I missed my chance to get a good photo of some of these signs, they went down fast with the temporary walls.

Eventually I figured out that the asbestos was a component of the old shelving, which shows you that the shelves were mighty old. I had a harebrained theory that the asbestos was part of electric wiring inside the shelves, but someone pointed out to me that most of the shelves did not have lighting so there was very little wiring. That same very reliable eyewitness told me that at one point she saw workers pull out from behind the plywood “a grayish green cotton like material” that sounds like some kind of insulation. Perhaps the best thing is to try not to think about it too much.

Recycling Cans Behind The Service Desk At Honest Weight Coop
Recycling Cans Behind The Service Desk At Honest Weight Coop

The first grocery in Albany to collect plastic shopping bags was, of course, Honest Weight Coop. Back at their old store on Central Avenue, and even going back decades to their even older cramped and crowded Quail Street store, they collected usable bags of any sort. But instead of recycling them, they reused the bags if the customers requested them to carry their purchases.

When Honest Weight moved into their new built-to-order modern supermarket at the bottom of Watervliet Avenue, a convenient location for suburbanites in cars coming off the highway, the store quickly stopped this practice of reuse. I use to now and then donate my home collection of bags to the store simply to get them out of my kitchen pantry, but when the new store opened I was told in a downright icy manner that they no longer had use for the big garbage bag full of bags I had hauled in there. Clearly this new Coop was no longer the regional headquarters of the food revolution, it had become, as the managers had been repeatedly proclaiming, a competitor to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.

No way will I ever shop in those two supermarkets, the nearest outlets are located a good half hour’s drive from my home through terrible suburban traffic. When Honest Weight was contemplating moving from their Central Avenue store I supported the efforts of the late Mark Yolles to move the store to the South End, which would have been very convenient for me and would have continued what a minority of Coop shareholders called “the Coop’s mission.” But as a certain snotty woman sniffed at me, “No one wants to shop for food in the South End.”

That snowy Saturday afternoon I realized I’d never seen a bag barrel in the new Honest Weight store. So I went over there and asked an employee where it was and found out that it was indoors, but hidden away behind the service desk! Honest Weight has high quality food and so I still shop there even though they’ve become very pricey, but in some things they are starting to fall behind.

At The Hannaford In Bethlehem: Where’s The Signage?
At The Hannaford In Bethlehem: Where’s The Signage?

After that I drove out to the high-income suburb of Bethlehem, which is just past the City line at the Normanskill within spitting distance of the South End, to see if their Hannaford supermarket had a bin. Sure enough the can was right inside the front door, conveniently located for shoppers where the air was warm and easy to find. It wasn’t specifically marked as a bag can, but the lid with a slit clearly could only accommodate bags.

A week later when I was finishing up this article, I went to the Hannaford at Central Avenue and Fuller Road in Albany to find several buckets for recycling various materials located inside, but no barrel specifically for shopping bags. As I was leaving I asked a young lady employee who was shadowing me (I had been walking around the front suspiciously peering about and frowning) where the barrel was. She confirmed that the store had two sets of general recycling cans but no cans specifically for shopping bags.

Wait, What? Unspecific Recycling Cans At The Albany Hannaford
Wait, What? Unspecific Recycling Cans At The Albany Hannaford

This brought up a question that I had not considered, are the stores required to put out bins specifically for plastic bags or can they get away with general recycling bins? According to the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) they have to provide cans specifically for plastic bags. Or at least that’s how I interpret what they say.

But wait, it appears that a lot of supermarkets in the State have indeed been skirting the intention of the law, no doubt splitting legal hairs and occasionally waving around lawyers. It seems that this law has needed some clarification. From the DEC:

Governor Cuomo has recently signed amendments to the Act to include film plastics which are defined as "Uncontaminated Non-Rigid Film Plastic Packaging Products Composed of Plastic Resins, Which Include, But Are Not Limited To, Newspaper Bags, Dry Cleaning Bags And Shrink-Wrap." This amendment goes into effect on March 1, 2015.

So there you go, what a coincidence. Starting the day after I post this article every single one of the supermarkets in the State have to provide barrels that are specifically for the purpose of recycling bags, and not just shopping bags, no ifs ands or buts. The amendment may be tested in court, but I would think it would be cheaper for the stores and better for their images to just put a damn barrel for bags inside the entrances.

Delaware Avenue Save-A-Lot In A Snow Squall
Delaware Avenue Save-A-Lot In A Snow Squall

Driving back into town along Delaware Avenue I remembered the Save-A-Lot in that suburban style plaza located just west of the Second Avenue intersection. This little supermarket has the absolutely lowest food prices in the region, a store without frills and often lacking in well-advertised name brand items. Yet it is clean and well stocked at all times, definitely a place to buy food if you lose your job or merely because you’d rather not spend too much of your hard earned cash.

All too many people, including those who ought to know better, turn up their noses at the place and refuse to shop there. I only go there occasionally, but I’ve never seen it crowded the way pretty much every other supermarket around here gets at least now and then. I consider such snobbery strange and hard to understand, I’ve always found their foodstuffs as good as anything found in the other more “respectable” nearby supermarkets but more affordable.

So when I walked into the Save-A-Lot I was delighted to find the bag recycling barrel just inside the front door, prominently convenient like with the suburban supermarkets. Perhaps those bigger more expensive supermarkets could learn a thing or two from this lower status market. I started to wonder why I hadn’t been visiting this store, I immediately resolved to shop here more often.

Bag Can At The Save-A-Lot, Also Needs More Specific Signage
Bag Can At The Save-A-Lot, Also Needs More Specific Signage

Okay, so what I’m taking from all this is that if I want to recycle the bags that The Wife and I generate out of our home then I’ll have to continue to take them periodically to a local supermarket. Up until now there’s been very little information about how and where to recycle these bags, neither the City of Albany not the local supermarkets have been very informative. But because of the amended law going into effect on March 1st, it may become a lot easier to locate and use these bag barrels.

Right now I doubt the supermarkets are making any profit from me and a handful of other people who are shoving bags into these barrels, barrels that most of the stores seem reluctant to provide. That might soon change if the supermarkets end up forced to handle large quantities of bags, they could become either a new source of profit or become an expensive annoyance for the supermarkets. Personally I’d rather put them out on the curb so that my own City government can sell them to recyclers. But we can toss that bag when we empty it.

Meanwhile, I’m going to look for a suitable easy to use container for my “plastic bags, films and shrink wrap” as the DEC puts it. That means I will have to find a convenient spot for it in or near the kitchen that is not in the way, and I’ll have to integrate hauling the bags to a supermarket into my usual routines. Yeah, but like I said, this is something I want to do. I sure hope more people start making the effort to recycle bags too.

Save-A-Lot Has The Best Prices
Save-A-Lot Has The Best Prices


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Posted by:Barbara
Posted on:03/01/2015
Use one of the plastic bags to hold the other bags. You can hang it on a hook. That's what we do.
Thanks for the update. Recycling information is difficult to come by, and difficult to interpret. Most of the bag bins tell you they are only for supermarket bags. Also when they are placed next to the bottle return machines, they get contaminated with sticky beer. At least that's what I think they mean by contaminated.

Posted by:Bagman
Posted on:03/14/2015
Price Chopper is usually very good about placement of the bag barrels, and consistently place them near the bottle return areas. The Madison chopper until the construction started had them placed right next to the RedBox machine outside.

If you find yourself in NYC, I'd suggest taking a tour of the NYC sanitation departments newish recycling center... It would alleviate your skepticism. Technology has improved automated sorting to the point that plastics are getting higher prices per ton than metals for recycling purposes. This makes single stream possible and raises compliance.

Plastic films are a nightmare to sort, especially when they get wet. We'd all be better served by banning their use in bags.

Posted by:Jim Travers
Posted on:03/28/2015
Dan, although I'm sure it's unintentional, your comments about Hannaford's Delmar store are misleading. While there might have been a blue bin for plastic bags inside the store the day you took the photo, that's not the location where they accept bottles and plastic bags for recycling.

There is a separate room built into the store to the left of the stores left entrance (closer to Delaware) that is their recycling center. It has one machine for crushing aluminum cans, another for shredding plastic bottles and one for shattering glass bottles. There are two bins in this room to receive plastic shopping bags for recycling and there is usually an attendant on duty behind a counter.

Had you inquired, you would have been told its location. I've found most employees there are very helpful.

The larger issue is why are we still using those darned things? Paper bags can be composted and canvas bags last nearly a lifetime.

Single use plastic bags are an absurdity and a plague upon our landscape. Less than 5% of those manufactured are being recycled - the rest are blowing in the wind, before or after being ejected from landfills.

Ban the bag!

Posted by:Roberta Nichols
Posted on:02/26/2016
Great post! I hope more people to be concern about recycling and to start understanding the benefits of this process and how important is for us and our environment!

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