City officials say they’ve made great strides in persuading residents to divert recyclable waste from landfills, but one big problem continues to plague them: plastic bags.

Plastic bags routinely jam the machines at the recycling plant. Officials estimate they lose about $1 million a year in lost time because of improper recycling, mostly because of flimsy, plastic bags.

“(People) tend to think that because it’s plastic, it is recyclable,” said Chad Hardy, the solid waste superintendent for Phoenix. “And they don’t understand the way the machinery works – its belts, its conveyors, its drums, its beaters – and when those things are moving, the plastic bags get stuck in there. And there’s no weight to them, so they aren’t able to move through the system.”

Mounds of recyclables whiz by on conveyor belts before they’re sorted and prepared for resale. The machinery at the transfer stations shuts down once or twice per day because of non-recyclable items.

The 27th Avenue and North Gateway Transfer stations process about 250 tons of recycling each day, and officials estimate about 30 percent of that is contaminated.

“We have to get the education out, and we need the residents to recycle more, but also recycle properly,” said Lucas Mariacher, the Zero Waste coordinator for the city.

The city partnered with the Arizona Food Marketing Alliance for its Bag Central Station program, which allows residents to return plastic bags – including sandwich bags, bubble wrap and dry-cleaning bags – to certain grocery stores. The program celebrated its 10th anniversary this week.

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