JUNE 2010
Plastic bag recycling surges

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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.

Click to Enlarge - Recycled hardwood sawdust, called “wood-flour” used to make composite lumber comes from wood flooring manufacturers, cabinet and furniture makers.

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 to wildlife.

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,” said Heglas.

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 material.

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.