Plastic Bag / Film Recycling – Getting More Attention & Results Everyday

Posted on 8/15/2013 12:10:34 PM By Jeff Timm

Plastic, bag and recycling are three words that until recently were never written together.  The word ‘ban’ is usually used in place of the word ‘recycling’.  But just in case you have not been paying attention plastic bag recycling is gaining in popularity, awareness and collected tonnage.  Plastic bags fit into a larger category of film recycling.

European Plastic News reports that, Market Study Plastic Films – World, by Ceresana Research indicates the global market for plastic film will reach 156.5 billion lbs. (71 million metric tons) by 2020 growing at an annual 3.7% rate.  The study includes both food and non-food applications such as agricultural, bags, sacks, dry-cleaning film and stretch/shrink films.  Ceresana reports that polyethylene films — LDPE, LLDPE, HDPE currently account for 73% of the global market but BOPP and PET films are growing as well.

Needless to say there is a huge opportunity to recycle plastic film.  So why is it not happening on a grander scale?  Very simply there are some key reasons why plastic film recycling is lagging plastic bottles, containers and other durable plastics:

  • Plastic film, due to its thin gauge (thickness) is hard to chip or shred in material recovery facilities (MRFs), although technology is being developed to address this.
  • Plastic film is harder for MRFs to clean if contaminated (food, soil/dirt, labels, other materials) than rigid plastic.
  • Plastic film is analogous to foam in that it has a low weight to bulk ratio making transportation and distribution of film, which is usually based on weight (pounds/kilos), non-cost effective.
  • Home pick-up recycling programs in most municipalities do not collect plastic film material.  The Moore Recycling Associates, Inc.  2012 Plastic Film and Bag Recycling Collection: National Reach Study of curbside programs (using the 2008 census data available at the time) showed that only 10.8% of the U.S. population had curbside access to bag and film recycling.  For the other 89.2% of the population this makes the whole process non-consumer friendly relying on voluntary drop box locations at the 15,000 locations across the country where consumers can drop off film, bags and wraps for recycling in grocery stores or other mostly retail outlet collection points. Additionally, residential film collected curbside—especially in a single stream program—usually is more heavily contaminated and the resulting bales are less valuable. There are very limited markets for these curbside bales because the material requires significantly more cleaning and handling to make it usable.
  • Plastic film is often not a mono-structure especially in food and any high barrier application like stand up pouches and cheese/meat packaging.  Often it is a coextrusion or lamination of many layers, sometimes seven or more, combinations of different plastics, adhesive, paper or foil.  Most recycle systems require a single material at the end of the recycle process even with the input being a mixed (commingled collection) stream.  The nature of the coextrusion or lamination structure makes it difficult to separate for single material recovery.  Films of this type are not currently considered as recyclable by the packaging industry.
  • Plastic bag recycling does not have as long a recycling history and awareness as bottles and other types of plastic, therefore consumers are not sensitized to the recyclability of plastic bags and film in general, thus there is less involvement.

The State of Plastic Bag Recycling: 

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The state of plastic bag recycling in the U.S. as a percent of all recycled plastic could best be described as small but growing.  Fifty-five percent growth since 2005 to 1 billion lbs. in 2011 according to Moore Recycling Associates, Inc. in their 2011 National Postconsumer Plastic bag & Film recycling Report.  It should be noted that Moore uses the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) definition of ‘post-consumer’- a material or finished product that has served its intended use and has been diverted or recovered from waste destined for disposal, having completed its life as a consumer item.  The other EPA pertinent definition ‘post-industrial’ is defined as material generated in manufacturing and converting processes, such as scrap and trimmings/cuttings.  The Moore report includes post-consumer recycle as defined by the EPA but does not include post-industrial recycle.

The largest quantity of recycled plastic film is Commercial Clear at 47%.  The largest end use for most of this category which is primarily PE based stretch wrap and clear poly bags is for the composite decking industry, forty-two percent of all U. S. recycled film is used for this application.  The second category is Commercial Mixed Color which is similar to the previous category except it is colored at 14%.  The Mixed Retail Collected category is the one that includes plastic bags, dry cleaning film, newspaper and bread wraps, etc.  The Curbside category at 3% can also contain plastic bags.  Moore calculates that plastic bag volume collected from all types is 151 million lbs. in 2011, a 19% increase from 2010.  Thus, the percentage of bags collected is 15% of the total film recycled.

By comparison another Moore study found that in 2011 at least 94% of the U.S. population was able to recycle plastic bottles (and their caps) right in their own community.  More than 2.6 billion pounds of plastic bottles were recycled in 2011, a number that has increased every year since 1990.  However, the EPA estimates that only 30% of bottles sold were recycled in 2010, so the opportunity exists to recycle even more.

How to Increase Plastic Bag/Film Recycle Rates:

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The How2Recycle label developed by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition has been discussed in previous blogs.  Its usage will grow as more consumer brand owners adopt the program.  The concept of the informative label is to give consumers more information on what, where and how to recycle articles.

Another way to increase rates is to increase the number to types of plastic that are acceptable at curbside.  Almost everyone has access to recycle plastics with the #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE) ASTM Resin Identification Code (RIC) system.  Many curbside programs still only take #1 and #2.  It has only been in the last couple of years that mixed stream recycling has been possible and more areas are accepting a broader range of additional plastics.  In fact New York City now is proposing to recycle everything.  The city has launched an ad campaign to encourage New Yorkers to recycle everything to address the 11,000 tons of waste created every day.  They also have a mandatory plastic bag take-back recycling program for residents.

Designing articles so that they can be more easily separated for recycle is another way to increase rates.  Finally, identifying new markets for recycled plastic material is a sure winner.  Most recycled PET goes into polyester carpeting or fill or is exported.  Most HDPE goes into large plastic articles like garbage tote bins or children’s toys.  More technology and economically viable end-users need to be identified for nylon, polypropylene, polystyrene and EPS foam.

Plastic Bans Are Not the Answer:

Most plastics used today have been in the marketplace since the 1950s or before.  Over that period of time market forces have optimized the plastics of choice for most common applications where plastics are found.  To ban such a material is only looking at one side of the equation.  What is the unintended consequence of the alternative that will be used to fill the void of the banned material?  Will it have a better carbon footprint? Will it displace more workers in our slowly recovering economy? Will increased materials be sent to landfills because the alternative is not recyclable?  Will some new health risk develop by using the alternative material?  Before contemplating bans all parties involved should look at recycling as a very viable alternative that actually has a positive outcome for all concerned as well as the environment.

In fact the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) recently announced the release of a policy on bans and fees for recyclable paper and plastic bags.  The policy is in response to increased efforts across the country to ban or apply fees to such bags for grocery shopping and other purposes without taking the impacts to the recycling industry into account.

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ISRI's policy:

  • Promotes a free and fair, competitive, market‐based system for the trade of recyclable materials such as paper and plastic bags

  • Supports a competitive marketplace that does not restrict, direct, or interfere with the free flow of recyclable materials

  • Opposes bans and fees on paper and plastic bags that are being manufactured into useful commodity grade materials and sold into viable, commercial markets without subsidies or noncompetitive, fixed pricing

  • Promotes the proper recycling and economic opportunities associated with the collection, processing, and reuse in finished products such as paper and plastic bags

  • Supports requiring retailers to provide convenient collection for recycling of plastic bags offered in their stores

The IRSI cites “the recycling industry is a pivotal player in environmental protection and sustainability.  In the United States, approximately 77% of paper mills rely on recovered fiber to make some or all of their products thanks in part to recovered paper's significant cost and energy savings.  Recycling one ton of paper saves 17 trees, 79 gallons of oil, 7,000 gallons of water, and 3.3 cubic yards of landfill space.  According to the U.S. EPA, plastic recycling results in significant energy savings, an estimated 50-75 million Btus/ton of material recycled. 

Doesn’t this sound like a better idea than outright bans?

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Related Links:

European Plastics News

Ceresana Research

Market Study Plastic Films – World

Moore Recycling Associates

2011 National Postconsumer Plastic bag & Film recycling Report

2012 Plastic Film and Bag Recycling Collection:  National Reach Study

Moore Recycling Associates, Inc.:  Educational Website

U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Definitions of Recycle Terms

Sustainable Packaging Coalition

How2recycle Label

Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc.

New York City Plastic Bag Recycling Program

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