How do you recycle builders merchants bulk bags

Filed in Blog by on September 19, 2008 27 Comments
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builders merchant bulk bags for recycling
Person A: “We don’t charge you for them, so just throw them in the bin.”
Mr Green: “There is no harm to the environment then by doing this?”
Person A: “There’s no environmental issue at all; just throw them away.”


Person B: “I dunno mate; just throw them in the skip I guess.”
Mr Green: “So there is no harm to the environment by doing this?”
Person B: “Ummm, well I dunno. No one’s ever asked before. I don’t think so, no one has ever said anything. Nah, just take them to the dump and throw them away. I suppose if you could be bothered, you could keep them and use them for compost or something.”

Person C: “Just put them in the bin along with everything else; we don’t want them.”
Mr Green: “So there is no harm to the environment by doing this?”
Person C: “Well, I suppose you could bring them back to us. We recycle things like card and paper so we could get rid of them for you.
Mr Green: “So if I bring these back to you, you will recycle them or dispose of them responsibly?”
Person C: “Well I don’t really know, we get, you know, memos and stuff at work about boxes and papers, so I suppose you could.

You remember the lovely man who lives in our village who is in the middle of the self build of his eco home?  He gave us some more wood off cuts this week for the woodburner.

We’ve been borrowing the large builders bags to carry the wood in from his site to our home. The ones that come filled with sand or sharp shingle.

As it happens, we know that our friend wants these bags back for reuse and recycling, but the above conversations are the result of three phonecalls to builders merchants; posing the question “What should we do with these enormous, strong bags after use”.

Shocking isn’t it?

Person A
just thought about cost – they haven’t charged us, so we can just dump them. Person B thought when pushed that perhaps we could reuse them and Person C, when pushed thought we MIGHT be able to take them back for recycling. But she wasn’t convincing.

There is nothing on these bags to state what they are, but from browsing the internet it looks as if they might be woven polypropylene with some kind of UV protection. So, probably not particularly recyclable. Once something has a coating or a liner on it, it becomes harder to deal with.

Now I know it’s only a bag, and compared to rocks, woods or concrete blocks they weigh next to nothing, but how many of these bags get delivered to building sites across the country? And how many of them get reused or recycled, compared to ‘chucked in the skip’?

According to WRAP the UK construction industry consumes more than 400 million tonnes of materials each year and generates over 100 million tonnes of waste. So a quarter then! Think what we could do with that, if we convert it to a saving – better insulation, perhaps or a ground source heat pump as standard in all new builds………..

Around 30 million tonnes each year ends up as construction waste going straight to landfill. WRAP, along with The Sustainability Forum, are calling on the construction industry to achieve a 50% cut in materials waste going to landfill by the year 2012.

So maybe this would be a really simple place to start – the refilling of these enormous bulk bags with sand or shingle. Or how about constructing compost heaps in back gardens of these new homes from pallets and lined with these bags? Even encouraging people to grow potatoes in them.

Oh I know – make them into a set of aprons for the new family with matching placemats! And we know a very good home for all the offcuts of wood thank you very much!

Mind you, with the way things are going; perhaps the new residents should fill them with sand again and keep them for when the rains come to prevent their new homes flooding…………..

About the Author ()

I am a long time supporter of the Green and Sustainable lifestyle. After being caught in the Boscastle floods in 2004, our family begun a journey to respect and promote the importance of Earth's fragile ecosystem, that focussed on reducing waste. Inspired by the beauty and resourcefulness of this wonderful planet, I have published numerous magazine articles on green issues and the author of four books.

Comments (27)

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  1. Kris says:

    That’s pretty insane – we’ve had these in the past and found them massively useful for taking green waste to be recycled, or really lugging any kind of potentially mucky waste in the car. They are also an adhoc cover-up for things in the garden. I’ve also seen quite a few begging posts for them on Freecycle.

    They seem an absolutely obvious thing for the suppliers (ie the builders merchants and so on) to collect back up if the recipient of the goods has no further use for them and to use them all over again.

    • Claire Selby says:

      The problem with these bags is they are only designed to be lifted whilst fully loaded a maximum of five times. This really only allows for filling, loading to go to merchants, offloading at the merchants, re-loading onto merchants lorries or customers transport, then final offloading at the other end. If they were to be re-used, the likelihood is that the bag would fail, and the danger would be nearly a tonne of aggregate landing on someone! On a lesser scale, the loss of product would have financial implications on customer, merchant and supplier.
      As someone working in the sector, finding a solution to the number of failed bags that we have to contend with is a headache. They are made from new polypropylene, but there are very few people out there running recycling schemes. Re-using for their original purpose is not an option, as I’ve explained. Domestic re-use is just a drop in the ocean. Pressure on the manufacturers of these bags to create a product that is readily recyclable whilst retaining the durability and not impacting hugely on the cost to us, the user is the only way forward.

      Its worth remembering that these bags were brought in to lessen site waste of construction materials, thus saving resources and reducing environmental impact from quarrying, transport etc. One solution always seems to create another problem as a side effect!

      • Mr Green says:

        Claire, thank you for such a comprehensive response; it’s great to hear from someone ‘on the inside’ who can share insight and add value to the conversation…

  2. Mr. Green says:

    So far we have mainly focused on home, kitchen waste and that has been a challenge enough. You can’t help notice many other areas of waste such as this builders sand bag thing and wonder just how far all this wastefulness goes.

    Yesterday I changed a faulty 3 pin plug socket in the house. There was nothing I could do to repair the broken switch as the socket is ‘non-servceable’ construction. Afterwards I looked at the old switch thats made of bakerlite and various metals like brass, and mild steel. Unfortunarely, there seemed to be no way to easily dis-assemble these parts for reuse, although I kept the screws. So, how many of these and its like are being tossed into the landfill every day? It also appears that bakelite is not a very wholsome substance either, as it is made from phenol and formaldehyde resin, both toxic.

    So, we are merly scratching the surface of post consumer waste, especially when we look into the maintenance, repair and construction industry.

  3. Kris says:

    That’s reminded me – we have a duff socket, and when my husband examined it he was also dismayed to find that there is no way round replacing the whole thing because one small bit has broken. So far we have taken the zero waste option of not getting round to doing anything… but that’ll change unfortunately.

    I believe Vision 21, the sustainability concern, based in Cheltenham have compiled some sort of guide to building materials.

  4. Hi Mr Green,

    There is no hiding from the other sources of landfill waste outside our sphere. We can only push for change in our areas, especially with the Council/Zero Waste enthusiast cooperation. The Gloucestershire January Zero Waste Week should be a great event, the first joint large-scale venture. I wonder what will be expected from you and Mrs Green. Is there a meeting planned for preparations?

  5. Emma says:

    I think there’s a health & safety issue with companies taking them back and re-using them. Perhaps they’re not guaranteed to take the weight a second time. There has been an article doing the rounds in the gardening magazines (they recycle – content!) that suggests using them as a large planter in the garden. You build a wooden frame for them, so they stay upright and you can’t see the bag itself. I will try and dig one of the articles out.

  6. Poppy says:

    That link doesn’t work for me Emma, just takes me to the Yahoo sign-in page.

  7. Emma says:

    Ah, soz, didn’t know Flickr did that. Try this one:

  8. Poppy says:

    That’s better. Great idea 🙂

  9. Mrs Green says:

    Thanks for the idea of Vision 21 Kris, I’ll look into that this weekend.
    John, we’ve heard nothing from GLos council regarding any role from us at the moment with zero waste week. We may have already done our bit by instigating the original zero waste week and sharing our ideas with them. They are doing a similar thing in that you pledge to do things and you are in with a chance of winning a voucher. Perhaps this is all they needed from us or maybe there will be a meeting later in the year. We’ll see, but as you know, we are eager and willing to help them in any way they see fit.

    Emma, thanks for the interesting article. We did wonder whether a ‘contamination’ issue might be the reason for no reusing. I’ve no idea; it’s totally beyond me. But the idea of the bags carrying weight second time around might be a real consideration………
    I guess innovative reuse is the way forward for householders.

  10. Hi Mrs Green,

    I think there will be a role for your family as a means to bring a stronger message to the local householders and families.

    Zero Waste enthusiasts could also participate to provide other activiites eg phone-ins, community meetings, workshops etc. I would definitely be interested in this campaign because success in Gloucester could be the springboard for success in other counties.

    The public is way behind our waste perspective and it will require a massive effort to change things. The beauty of the Council/Zero Waste alliance is that everybody wins. Just like with food collections, recently covered by Liz at WRAP, the more these good practices are taken up the better the effect on landfill reduction.

  11. Mrs Green says:

    John, I think there is the scope for a huge campaign here, but I feel unsure that this will happen in this area. We’ll see; maybe I will be pleasantly surprised and Gloucestershire will have a chance to lead the way 🙂

    That was good news about the WRAP announcement; we’ll be covering that this week.

  12. Hi Mrs Green,

    The combination of a good Councillor and your Zero Waste Week can be the basis for the first effective county sized effort. You could find out from like-minds, including your readers, an idea of numbers interested. It is a new type of activity for Zero Waste enthusiasts but it could make all the difference in making the council ZWW a success.

    I would imagine the Council will refer back to your ZWW in their literature for householders, including website and youtube details. If that is the case, your taking part in the week’s activities would be a certainty. We others could back your contribution in suitable ways.

  13. Rob Whittle,Nail2 says:

    There are multitrip and single trip bags. Multitrip are strong polypropylene weave and companies are happy to take them back an reuse them, often for sand with a basal drawstring. Most builders merchants bags are single trip bags with a thinner weaker weave that merchants tend not to take back or reuse, often they add a charge to cover the bagged service.

    When I was in landscaping I used them as excellent portable pruning bags to put prunings straight into, and drag alot, or balanced on top of a wheel barrow for instant portability. They are great for storing green waste.

    Essentially they are similar to geotextile products, so cut down the seams they form a 5 sq m cross that can be used to suppress weeds on allotments or turned into grow bag type uses; or used as a geotextile beneath small scale paving or as a cheap but affective weedblock 50mm under a gravel/bark/chip/mulch surface. Use wire clothes hangers as hoops (12″ bent into a 6″ hoop to connect and secure them down.

  14. I saw a Gardeners World where some waste ground – mostly concrete – had been turned into a community garden by simply filling bags like that with compost and top soil and growing things in them. They didn’t bother hiding the bags although I think some kids decorated some of them and the plants cascaded over the sides.

    It was very effective.

  15. Mrs Green says:

    Hi John,
    Well, we’re signed up for the local challenge and if we can assist the council in any way at all with their promotions or ideas then we’re right here ready and willing to help out.

    Hi Rob, good to see you again. Thank you for the information about multi and single use with these bags. Nobody that we spoke to ‘in the trade’ explained that to us.
    I can certainly see a gardening use for the odd one or two bags and for storage of green waste. But I fancy that ones used on a building site get put straight into a skip.
    It’s a great idea to use them as a weed suppressor, especially as the black plastic you buy is expensive.

    Hi Sarah, I think they would make funky growing bags – I like the idea of children decorating them and the plants tumbling out!

  16. Brian says:

    Large bulk bags are very recyclable. I am a supplier of these bags to many companies inside the United States. I will give you some info on them.

    The bags are classified as 1 of 3 types:

    5:1 single time use*
    6:1 multi trip use
    8:1 United Nations approved

    a 5:1 bag that has an original weight limit of 2500 lb. will not necessarily be rated at the same 2500 lb. on subsequent uses. I have found, however, that the deterioration from multiple use is minimal (maybe 2% per use).

    The next big factor to consider is if the bags have been coated with any material other than the plastic used in constructing the bag. Most bags have a 1% UV inhibitor mixed in on the master batch of material. This alone will not prevent the material from being reformed into another useful product.

    It is very easy to source a large supply of these bags from companies and setup a program to resell them to others. It is also very easy to collect them in large quantities and sell them to a company that will reprocess them.

    Cross contamination is only an issue when the bag previously contained a powder or liquid. There are companies established in the US that will “clean” the bags and remove the contaminant.

  17. Kris says:

    That’s really clear and interesting, thanks Brian.

  18. Mrs Green says:

    Hi Brian,
    welcome to the site and thank you for some wonderful information. Unfortunately, over here in the UK this is not the case, but we can certainly learn from your experiences. Who knows; one day perhaps we will catch up with what you are doing over there!

  19. Charlie O says:

    Hi, i work for a Landscape Supply Company and i am putting together a pack for our customers so that they have lots of other useful ideas to do with their bags instead of throw it away. I’ve been reading through all of the comments and there is some really useful tips there, does anyone know how exactly i would be able to make a composting bin our of a bulk bag? Do you know what tools i would need and the cost at all? i would like to suggest a few things “out side of the box” if possible, one suggestion in the winter is to cut them up and use as a windsceen protector, in the summer as a bbq cover…any ideas would be greatly appreciated! thanks

  20. Mrs Green says:

    Hi Charlie, welcome to the site. What a great project you are working on with the information pack for your customers about reusing their bags. I hope other readers come along with their suggestions for you.

    I’m not sure exactly how you would make a composting bin; I guess it would ideally require some kind of structuring to keep it robust? but I’m sure it would just work as it is, as long as you put some soil or compost in there to start things off, otherwise the micro-organisms and worms might have trouble getting in.

    if you wanted something more robust, then I guess 4 pieces of wood stuck into the ground to make some kind of frame for the bag would be the answer.

    I know from having potatoes sprout all over the place that you could certainly grow those in one of these large bags.

    Using them for garden furniture / BBQ protectors is a great idea and I guess you could use them to line hanging baskets too.

    Good luck and perhaps we can see a copy of your pack when it is completed? It would be great to feature it on our site – we can link back to your landscape supply company 🙂

  21. Vicky says:

    Hi everyone. theres some great comments on here.

    I have a stone merchants so we use quite a lot of these bags. The ones we use on the premises we usually split from underneath so they cannot be re-used unfortunately. We would like to recycle them though. I just got off the phone to our bulk-bag supplier who said she didnt know what to do with them, they dont collect them and to ring our local council.

    I love the idea to give customers an idea of how to re-use their bags though as we supply a lot of gravels etc. I might look into getting a leaflet put together too.

    As for the recycling of the bags – does anyone know someone that will take them or a way I can recycle the un-usable bags that is either free or low cost??


  22. Mrs Green says:

    @Vicky: Hi Vicky, great to see you. interesting to get your comment as you have a stone merchants! Are you in the UK? Would love to help you create a leaflet for your customers 🙂 Not sure about your last question – have you read through all the comments and post for some suggestions?

  23. John says:

    I have used builders bags on my allotment. They can be very useful, for composting very large amounts of garden waste, especially when clearing a wild long unattended plot. You can see more about how I used then here.

  24. Kirpi says:

    Much lighter to carry to your allotment than four heavy pallets to lash together to make a composing bin and no wood to get rid of when the bin eventually goes rotten.
    – and easier to find than pallets these days and they only go to landfill so great to be able to re-use them.

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