Ditching White Plastic Bags

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Earth911 writer Jennifer Berry was invited on a press trip to the Hilex Poly North Vernon, Ind. recycling plant. This is her report.

Recycled plastic bag pellets

Phil Rozenski holds the amount of plastic needed for one bag in the palm of his hand. He says that to use more recycled content, consumers must demand colored bags. Photo: Jennifer Berry, Earth911

Plastic bags are a thorn in environmentalists sides. Blowing in the wind, floating in the ocean – the images of bags in the environment are not easily forgotten because people find them hard to recycle.

While reusable bag use is on the rise, plastic bags are still churning. About 89 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps are used each year in the U.S. Despite increased messaging about the need to recycle the plastic bags Americans do use, only about 12 percent are recycled each year.

With plastic bags still being in high-demand, and serious environmental concerns needing addressing, Hilex Poly, a leading plastic bag manufacturer, created the only closed-loop bag and film recycling facility in North America. With more than 100 million pounds of bags collected for recycling, now the company’s main eco-goal is to shift cultural perceptions on what bags should actually look like.

Why ditch the white bags

Essentially, the darker a bag is, the more recycled content it can contain. A white plastic bag can only contain about 10 percent recycled content, which is typically only post-industrial, not post-consumer, waste. A blue bag can contain about 35 percent post-consumer recycled content, with gray bags moving closer to 40 percent.

Referencing the poor color mixing styles of preschoolers with fingerpaint, Phil Rozenski, director of sustainability and marketing for Hilex Poly, describes how the various colors of bags the company brings in for recycling from more than 30,000 collection points across the country render the plastic a buff to gray hue when it’s all melted together.

“So, if you have a store that’s using a white bag, we can’t use recycled content in it because it will change the color,” he says. “We’ve been helping educate retailers that if they change to a brown or gray bag, we can start using 30 percent, 40 percent recycled content.”

So why not only produce colored plastic bags? The answer: Marketing.

From restaurants and grocers to pharmacies, white bags “feel” more clean, fresh and new. “It’s kind of a cultural thing – food, medicines, everybody wants white,” says Rozenski, who works with retailers to explain why they should make the switch.

“A retailer will tell me ‘I don’t want to move from a white bag because my logo looks good on it,’” he says. “You need to bring marketing, sustainability, purchasing, all of them together.”

But once retailers make the switch, they don’t seem to go back. “We’ve never really had any complaints – once people change, they stay with that bag,” he adds.

Obstacles to overcome

Earlier this year, Earth911 reported that the U.S. plastic recycling industry faces massive shortages each year, simply because the amount of material returning for recycling is too low. The same effect is occurring with Hilex Poly’s Bag-2-Bag recycling program: they can’t collect enough to create more, post-consumer recycled content bags.

“Well, that’s our biggest obstacle – we don’t get it back,” Rozenski says. ”Realistically, you can go up to almost 100 percent recycled content in a bag,” he says, adding that the company is trying to increase that stream by adding new collection points and trying to incorporate new materials, such as shopping carts, into its recycling process.

According to Rozenski, Hilex used more than 100 million pounds of recycled plastic bags and wrap last year. And throughout the U.S., more than 880 million pounds were recovered.

Rozenski believes that consumer demand for the use of recycled content in bags will ultimately aid in encouraging retailers to adopt buff, blue or gray bags.

Reducing plastic bag use

Reuse rates for plastic bags are high, with rates ranging from 48 percent 60 percent of bags being reused as bin liners or for pet pickup. But these bags never see a recycling bin, and their materials are forever lost to the landfill.

Hilex isn’t blind to the concerns about plastic bag use across the country. Rozenski says it doesn’t want plastic in the ocean – it wants it back in its plants for recycling, where recycled content bags are made using less energy and resources than those from virgin materials.

The North Vernon plant operates a zero-waste manufacturing process, and the company as a whole teaches better bagging techniques to retailers to reduce consumption. Also, as an EPA WasteWise member, the company’s main initiative is to reudce the use of virgin materials throughout its industry.

“If we want to be sustainable, we’ve got to make our product better [...] We have an obligation to be a leader, not just for the industry but for other industries as well.”

You can see a tour of the Hilex Poly North Vernon plant for yourself below. What do you think: Is gray the new green?

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Editor’s Note: Earth911 partners with many industries, manufacturers and organizations to support its Recycling Directory, the largest in the nation, which is provided to consumers at no cost. The American Chemistry Council is one of these partners.

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