Plastic film is a thin gauge packaging medium used as a bag or a wrap. Examples include grocery sacks, trash and dry cleaning bags, and plastic wrap, such as stretch wrap. Plastic film is less than 10 mils in thickness, with an average of 0.7 mils to 1.5 mils. Most plastic trash bags are less than 1.0 mil in thickness. A mil is 0.00l inch.

Plastic film provides 38 percent of all plastic packaging. Flexible packaging includes plastic film, paper bags, aluminum foil and cellophane. Slightly more than half of flexible packaging is plastic. Paper packages constitute most of the rest, with aluminum foil supplying a small percentage.

The diversity of products, colors and resins, such as low-density polyethylene (LDPE), linear LDPE, high-density polyethylene (HPDE), polypropylene and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), make plastic film difficult to recycle. Bags are sorted by resin, color and printed vs. nonprinted. Labels, dirt and food are the main contaminants. Others contaminants include paper receipts, staples and other nonplastics.

Many films also are blends or coextrusions of two or more resins. Also, individual product characteristics may create remanufacturing problems. For instance, stretch wrap requires a “tackifier” so that the wrap can cling, yet this product quality is not desired in a bag.

Chaz Miller is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C. E-mail the author at: [email protected].

Plastic Film Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Facts:


  • 5.05 million tons of plastic film or 2.2% of MSW by weight.*
  • 0.85 million tons of trash bags or 0.4% of MSW by weight.*
  • 1.65 million tons of bags and sacks, or 0.7% of MSW by weight.*
  • 2.55 million tons of wrap or 1.1% of MSW by weight.*
  • 35.9 pounds of plastic film per person per year.*
  • Recycled:

  • 130,000 tons, for a 3% plastic film recycling rate.*
  • Trash bags have a “negligible” recycling rate.*
  • 10,000 tons or 0.6% of bags and sacks were recycled.*
  • 170,000 tons or 6.7% of plastic wrap was recycled.*
  • Supermarkets offer recycling bins.
  • Clean, industrial scrap is easily recycled.
  • Recycled Content:

  • Little, if any, post-consumer recycled content.
  • Pre-consumer recycled content is not unusual.
  • Recycled content can increase a bag's thickness by 50%.
  • Composted:

  • Plastic film does not compost.
  • Incinerated or Landfilled:

  • 4.87 million tons or 3% of discarded MSW by weight.*
  • 18,700 Btus per pound for polyethylene, the most common film resin. (MSW is 4,500 Btus to 5,000 Btus per pound.)
  • Landfill Volume:

  • 13 million cubic yards of plastic film or 3.1% of landfilled MSW.
  • 2.4 million cubic yards of trash bags.
  • 4.4 million cubic yards of bags and sacks.
  • 6.2 million cubic yards of wrap.
  • Density:

  • A 30" × 42" × 48" bale of plastic film in a horizontal baler weighs approximately 1,100 pounds.
  • Landfilled plastic film is 670 pounds per cubic yard.
  • Source Reduction:

  • Lighter in weight and less expensive than its competitors, plastic film is a good example of source reduction.
  • Recycling Markets:

  • Plastic lumber is the primary market for recycled plastic film.
  • Sources:

    American Plastics Council, Arlington, Va.

    Flexible Packaging Association, Linthicum.

    “Measurement Standards and Reporting Guidelines,” National Recycling Coalition, Washington, D.C.

    “Municipal Solid Waste In the United States: 2000 Facts and Figures,” EPA, Office of Solid Waste, 2002.

    *2000 EPA estimates.