The recycling of post-consumer plastic bags and wraps reached nearly 972 million pounds in 2010, according to a recent report.
This represents a 14 percent increase over 2009 and a 50 percent increase since 2005, according to the report developed by Moore Recycling Associates Inc. on behalf of the American Chemistry Council (ACC).
While the ACC called the findings a victory for plastic bag recycling, some environmental groups disagreed.
“By every measure, the recycling of single-use plastic bags is a failure,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste (CAW).
The group said the report shows promising growth in the recycling of “shrink wrap” and other plastic film – typically collected in the commercial sector – but doesn’t present ground-breaking numbers when it comes to plastic bag recovery.
However, the ACC noted that the data in the report does not support this conclusion, but rather that more plastic is being, and can be, recycled overall. “Focusing only on retail bags can have an adverse effect,” said Keith Christman, Managing Director of Plastics Markets for ACC. He suggested it is limiting to consumers and allows for missed opportunities to recycle other plastics.
“All measurable data shows strong growth in bag and film recycling,” said Christman. “It’s unfortunate that anyone would see that as a negative.”
In the ACC study, plastic bags and wraps are combined into a category known as “plastic film.” According to the report, recycling of plastic bags alone increased by 27 percent between 2009 and 2010.
The ACC report estimates that bags make up 40 to 55 percent of the commingled bales collected at retail locations. But activists said that bags represent less than 6 percent of mixed plastic film from retail collection, citing a recent California study.
However, California is currently the only state that monitors plastic bag and film recycling. So, data showing the specific number of bags recycled in other states is unavailable for a comprehensive comparison. In California, the recycling rate for regulated plastic carryout bags is about 3 percent, leading many cities to explore bag bans to cut back on waste.
The ACC does agree with the CAW about one thing: they both want to see the numbers improve.
In an effort to continue to recycle more plastics and film, the ACC formed its new Flexible Film Recycling Group (FFRG) – which includes members representing the full plastics film industry, from resin suppliers to film manufacturers, brand owners and recyclers. Founding members include Avanguard, Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil, SC Johnson, Sealed Air and Trex, the ACC said.
“The FFRG looks forward to working with all parts of the polyethylene film value chain to make it even simpler to recover and recycle this valuable plastic material,” said Steve Russell, ACC vice president of plastics. One of the ways the group will be doing this is adding more locations for consumers to recycle plastic bags and film.
Plastic bags and wraps recovered for recycling are used to make plastic and composite lumber for outdoor decks and fencing, home building products, garden products, crates, piping and new film packaging like plastic bags, the ACC said.
“Since 2005, the recycling of plastic bags and film has increased 15 percent faster than other materials,” said ACC’s Christman. “It’s one of the most exciting areas of recycling today.”
Editor’s Note: This article was updated to include additional quotations from the American Chemistry Council on Feb. 8.