If you live in Gwinnett, chances are good that you recently received a Hefty® EnergyBag® “starter kit” in your mailbox or saw sponsored posts about the Hefty EnergyBag program in Gwinnett in your social media feeds. Hefty, a brand that sells disposable products such as garbage bags, zip-close plastic bags, and foam, plastic, and paper tableware, recently sought to expand a diversion program for hard-to-recycle plastics to four counties in the metro Atlanta area, including Gwinnett, Fulton, Forsyth, and Cherokee. The Hefty EnergyBag program, which has been in Cobb County since 2018 and is also in Nebraska and Idaho, claims to “make it easy to collect otherwise hard-to-recycle plastics at curbside and convert them into valued resources.” In the starter kit and sponsored posts, Hefty marketed the program as a new feature becoming part of regular curbside recycling. The problem? They appear to not have first obtained consent from county and city governments, waste haulers, and the processors that sort our curbside recyclables. Each of these stakeholders must always approve of new materials becoming part of the municipal recycling stream in order to protect the efficiency and integrity of the recycling system and comply with our community’s existing residential waste service contracts. Despite what any program materials you may have seen might say, the Hefty EnergyBag program is NOT available curbside anywhere in Gwinnett County.
Q: How does the Hefty® EnergyBag® program work in Gwinnett?
Residents may purchase the company’s bright orange bags at Kroger grocery stores and fill them up with plastic items marked with a resin identification code (the number inside the recycling symbol) of #4, #5, or #6, as well as plastic packaging without foil lining, plastic bags and wrap, foam, and plastic dinnerware. None of these items are accepted in regular curbside recycling, which only includes flattened cardboard, paper, empty metal cans, and empty plastic bottles and jugs. Residents must buy the special eight-gallon orange bags to participate, which cost approximately $6.49 for a box of 20, or 33 cents per bag.
Q: I’ve filled up an EnergyBag® — now what?
The program is drop-off only in Gwinnett County. Plastic bags or bagged material of ANY kind is not acceptable in the curbside recycling bin, and never has been. EnergyBags, loose plastic bags, and any other bagged waste will cause litter and costly jams if included in curbside recycling, and will end up in the landfill. To dispose of a Hefty EnergyBag filled with the plastic items noted above, you can bring it to WestRock, located at 384 Maltbie Street in Lawrenceville, starting on October 15. Drop-off hours are Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Atlanta’s appointment-only Center for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM) is another public drop-off for Hefty EnergyBag material.
Q: What happens to the items in a Hefty® EnergyBag®?
From a drop-off, the Hefty EnergyBag material will ultimately travel either to Nexus Circular, a chemical recycler in Atlanta, or to a cement kiln.
Through a process called pyrolysis or “chemical recycling,” Nexus Circular heats plastic to the point where it breaks down into some of the raw ingredients needed to make new plastic. To be acceptable, the incoming stream must be extremely clean and free of “contamination” — the wrong stuff — such as metals (even the metal lining in many chip bags, candy wrappers, and snack wrappers), residual food or liquid, and plastics that don’t belong (like #1, #3, and #7). At this time, only the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM) sorts plastic to the cleanliness specification needed for chemical recycling, by having residents sort their plastic when dropping off, sorting it all again a second time, and then delivering it to Nexus for a third sort and processing. WestRock has shared that it does not plan to sort the EnergyBag material dropped off in Lawrenceville at all. Unfortunately, since contamination is rampant in recycling, that may mean that material from the Lawrenceville drop-off is never clean enough to be chemically recycled and might be burned in a cement kiln instead. That’s exactly what happened in Hefty’s EnergyBag program in Boise, Idaho, which began with hopes of chemical recycling and, due to contamination, went up in flames in a cement kiln. Material from the Omaha, Nebraska EnergyBag pilot program also ended up in a cement kiln.
Cement kilns aren’t a bulletproof solution for our mounting waste crisis. More and more waste globally is being sent to cement kilns funded by big brands dodging blame for choking the world with plastic, but burning plastic waste in a cement kiln can be thought of “like moving the landfill from the ground to the sky.” Here’s what a recent Reuters investigation reported: “Critics say there’s little green about burning plastic, which is derived from oil, to make cement. A dozen sources with direct knowledge of the practice, among them scientists, academics and environmentalists, told Reuters that plastic burned in cement kilns emits harmful air emissions and amounts to swapping one dirty fuel for another. More importantly, environmental groups say, it’s a strategy that could potentially undercut efforts spreading globally to boost recycling rates and dramatically slash the production of single-use plastic.” Burning plastic waste in a cement kiln is NOT recycling.
Q: What is Gwinnett Recycles’ opinion of the Hefty® EnergyBag® program?
As an independently funded grassroots citizen organization, we pride ourselves on serving as a watchdog for the environment and for the residents of our community who want to do right by it. We do not have a favorable impression of this program and we do not recommend spending money on Hefty EnergyBags. Rather than put your financial support toward a company that produces disposable products and buy plastic bags in order to prevent plastic waste (which doesn’t make much logical sense!), we suggest instead keeping your focus on reducing and refusing single-use plastic and other disposable products and packaging. Absolutely no recycling or disposal option, regardless of how seemingly green, technologically advanced, or innovative, is a substitute for — or should distract from — that ultimate eco-friendly action!
About Gwinnett Recycles: Gwinnett Recycles is focused on helping Gwinnett County, the second-largest county in the state of Georgia, reduce, reuse, compost, and recycle more material and keep waste out of landfills and the environment. Gwinnett Recycles is run 100% independently by citizen volunteers. To connect with us and support our efforts, follow us on Facebook and Instagram, subscribe to our newsletter, and consider volunteering with us!