The ubiquitous polyethylene grocery bag is
a marvel of modern plastics technology – cheap at about a penny
a piece, lightweight yet strong enough to hold a heavy load without
leaking, reusable for thousands of chores and eminently recyclable
to make more bags or other greener products.
They are not without critics, however. They
are too often found blowing in the wind, defacing the landscape,
are not biodegradable in landfills and many consider them harmful
Regardless, plastic bags and wraps are inexorably
intertwined with everyday life and are apparently here to stay.
Many of the problems can be greatly mitigated by personal responsibility
to prevent littering and by highly aggressive recycling programs
to recover more of a valuable commodity.
In 2008, of the 2,900 thousand tons of polyethylene
bags and wraps produced, 390 thousand tons were recovered for
a recycling rate of 13.4 percent.
To cope with the litter and wildlife endangerment
issues, the City of San Francisco banned plastic bags altogether
and dictated paper bags, or the alternative of bringing a carry-all.
In effect, forcing a paper bag is a hidden tax because it costs
five times more than its plastic counterpart and the burden is
ultimately borne by the consumer. Few realize the environmental
life-cycle consequences of this policy. Making paper bags produces
about twice the greenhouse gas emissions as plastic and results
in about 80 percent more waste. And because paper bags are much
heavier than plastic, it takes seven times greater trucking to
get bags to the store, resulting in more emissions. If not made
from recycled paper, consumers should also consider the destructive
forestry-wildlife implications of paper bags, the costs and emissions
of transporting wood, and the serious energy, air and water consequences
of pulping and paper mills.
On January 1, Washington DC imposed a five
cent tax on paper and plastic grocery bags. “Since a plastic
bag only costs about one cent, comparatively it’s a huge tax.
We are concerned about programs like that and the impact it may
have on bag and wrap recycling,” commented Christman.
Polyethylene is created through polymerization
of ethene gas with approximately 80 percent of the material coming
from natural gas. It is the most widely used plastic, primarily
used for films, bags and packaging. Today, most commercial polyethylene
winds up in landfills and some, unfortunately, in streams, lakes
and oceans, which is a shame because when reused or recycled
it is a useful material. Conventional polyethylene is not considered
biodegradable and takes hundreds of years to degrade, except
when exposed to ultraviolet light.
There are “biodegradable” alternatives being
marketed, but they are usually more expensive compostables that
only breakdown when professionally managed in industrial food-composting
facilities, of which there are fewer than 100 in the United States.
These so called biodegradables, however,
pose a threat to recyclers. If incorporated into recycled products
such as plastic lumber, the inherent ability to breakdown is
a major problem.
It is unlikely that society will revert to
paper bags, or toting wicker baskets, for that matter. In the
effort to “reduce, reuse and recycle”, the humble plastic grocery
bag could be the poster child for reuse. According to a national
survey conducted by APCO, an international research firm, over
92 percent of Americans reuse plastic bags for things like wastebasket
liners, trash disposal, carrying articles and disposing of animal
refuse. Google “reusing plastic bags” and you can find hundreds
of other clever ways people have found to reuse them, ranging
from packing material to storage applications to emergency rain
cover. Sadly, only four percent said they recycled.
The most expedient and practical solution
to the disposal problem is a continuous life cycle of recycling
driven by a growing recognition that plastic is a resource well
worth recovering. To that end, many new collection programs are
being expanded across the country. Christman cited a few examples
of the momentum – “A few weeks ago Target announced that they
were starting to take back plastic bags at their stores. In addition,
we know of about 15,000 plastic bag and wrap drop off locations
in the 50 states. We helped establish 133 of those in 2009 with
pilot programs in Lake County, Illinois and Orange County, North
Carolina. Recently the City of Philadelphia started working with
community partners on a new program called “Bring it Back Philly.”
Last year the Progressive Bag Affiliates,
an industry group of major United States bag manufacturers, launched
their Full Circle Initiative. Members committed to the goal of
having 40 percent recycled content by 2015. This is feasible
as more governments require bag recycling. California, New York,
Rhode Island and Delaware and cities like Chicago and Tucson
have recently passed laws requiring stores to take back plastic
bags and film for recycling, and many more mandates are coming.
Once educated, retailers should welcome recycling
bins at their stores. It’s not only a responsible community service,
but also an additional revenue stream.
Companies like Trex, the country’s largest
manufacturer of wood-alternative decking, railing and fencing
products that uses 95 percent recycled plastics and wood scrap
such as sawdust, are hungry for bales of reclaimed polyethylene.
“Last year we collected over two billion bags. That equates to
over 30 million pounds of bags,” said Dave Heglas, director of
material resources for Trex. “We sample our bales and count the
numbers of bags just to see what the breakdowns of our mixed
bales are. For all plastics we were over 200 million pounds last
year. We recycle a lot of stretch film, too, and packing for
furniture and electronics, primarily polyethylene, but we can
tolerate a little bit of polypropylene and mitigate it with our
process,” Heglas added.
Trex’s largest source of inbound plastic
comes through partnerships with national retailers that have
distribution centers serving a large number of stores. After
products are delivered to a store, the empty truck picks up plastic
from collection bins and waste plastic generated through operations
and returns it the distribution center. There it is combined
with waste film generated at the distribution center, baled and
accumulated in a trailer. In many cases, Trex parks an empty
trailer outside the distribution center. When it is full, Trex
picks it up and provides another empty trailer.
“We help the distribution center consolidate
the material, whether we sell them a baler, or help them buy
a baler with the plastics they generate,” Heglas explained. A
large Trex account can pay off a baler costing about $12,000
in a year and a half with the plastic it generates, but the company
calculates whatever investment it makes is a two-year payback.
After that, since balers have a long life a recycler can count
on a long term, consistent revenue stream. “Depending on how
much we have to invest in helping a company collect and how clean
the stream is, we pay anywhere from zero to 15 cents a pound,”
According to Heglas, the stream does not
have to be super clean, but it has to be dry with a conscious
effort that the collection process is distinct from trash. Trex
also has other collection channels through food distributors
that serve multiple grocery chains, through companies that call
on smaller stores and with and recyclers that consolidate the
To collect more material Trex is going deeper
into the collection stream. They are in the early stages of developing
a 50-pound baler that it is targeted at a $3,000 dollar cost.
This will permit small retailers, schools and non-profits to
efficiently pack and tap an income source.
“Almost every large grocery store has a collection
bin out front. It may not be in a place where easily seen, so
we try to get them to promote and manage it better. We have to
educate people to the fact that if they want to use plastic packaging
there is a way to recycle it. That’s why we have really targeted
the schools. We have over 160 programs in 21 states and Canada
at the elementary school level getting kids educated to the fact
that polyethylene packaging can be recycled,” said Heglas.
The problems caused by plastic grocery bags,
dry cleaning bags, bubble wrap and other polyethylene packaging
materials can largely be solved through an aggressive recycling
effort. To increase recovery, more highly-visible recycling bins
and drop off points are needed. Just as consumers have been educated
to recycle cans, bottles and paper, there must be a greater effort
to get a strong message out to the public.