Plastic Film

PLASTIC FILM IS A THIN gauge packaging medium that is used as a bag or a wrap. Examples include grocery sacks, trash bags, dry cleaner bags and plastic wrap. Plastic film is less than 10 mils in thickness, averaging between 0.7 mils to 1.5 mils. Most plastic trash bags are less than 1 mil thick. 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.

Different resins and colors make plastic film difficult to recycle. About 60 percent of plastic film uses low density polyethylene (LDPE) or linear LDPE resin, and approximately half of plastic film is pigmented.

Many films also blend or coextrude two or more resins. Also, individual product characteristics may create remanufacturing problems. For instance, stretch wrap requires a “tackifier” to make the wrap 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.*
  • 0.83 million tons of trash bags, or 0.4% by weight.*
  • 1.64 million tons of wrap, or 0.7% by weight.*
  • 2.58 million tons of wrap, or 1.1% by weight.
  • 5.1 pounds of plastic film per person.*


  • 180,000 tons, for a 3.6% film recycling rate.*
  • Trash bags are not recycled.*
  • 10,000 tons, or 0.6% of bags and sacks.*
  • 170,000 tons, or 6.6% of plastic wrap.*

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%.

Incinerated or Landfilled:

  • 4.87 million tons, or 3% of discarded MSW by weight.*
  • Highly combustible resin averages three times higher Btu than MSW.

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.


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

Source Reduction:

  • Lightweight and inexpensive, plastic film is a source reduction success.
  • A laundry detergent flexible pouch weighs 85% less than a rigid plastic bottle.

Recycling Markets:

  • Plastic lumber is the primary market.

End-Market Specifications:

  • Sort by resin, color and printed versus non-printed bags for highest value.
  • Labels, dirt and food are the main contaminants.
  • Others include paper receipts, staples and other nonplastics.


American Plastics Council, Arlington, Va.

Flexible Packaging Association, Linthicum, Md.

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

“Municipal Solid Waste In the United States: 2001 Facts and Figures,” U.S. EPA, Office of Solid Waste.

*2001 EPA estimates.