Plastic Film

Plastic film is a thin gauge packaging medium used as a bag or a wrap. Examples include grocery sacks, trash bags, drycleaner bags and plastic wrap. Plastic film is less than ten mils in thickness, with an average of 0.7 - 1.5 mils. A mil is 0.001 inch. Most plastic trash bags are less than 1.0 mil in thickness.

Plastic film provides 6 percent of all packaging and 33 percent of plastic packaging. Flexible packaging includes plastic film, paper bags, aluminum foil and cellophane. More than half of flexible packaging is plastic. Paper packages are most of the rest, with aluminum foil supplying a small percentage.

Different resins and colors make plastic film difficult to recycle. More than 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, but this product quality is not desired in a bag.

Chaz Miller is state programs director for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, Washington. E-mail the author at: [email protected].

Plastic Film Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Facts*:


  • 5.51 million tons of plastic film or 2.24% of MSW by weight.

  • 1.06 million tons of trash bags, or 0.4% of MSW.

  • 1.64 million tons of bags and sacks, or 0.7% of MSW.

  • 2.81 million tons of wrap, or 1.1% of MSW.

  • 37.2 pounds of plastic film per person.


  • 230,000 tons of film for a 4.5% recycling rate.

  • Trash bags are not recycled.

  • 10,000 tons of bags and sacks for a 0.6% recycling rate.

  • 220,000 tons of plastic wrap for a 7.8% recycling rate.

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%.


  • Plastic film does not compost.

Incinerated or Landfilled:

  • 4.87 million tons or 2.9% of discarded MSW by weight.

  • Highly combustible resin averages more than 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.

Landfill Density:

  • Landfilled plastic film weighs 670 pounds per cubic yard.

  • A 30-inch by 42-inch by 48-inch bale of plastic film in a horizontal baler will weigh approximately 1,100 pounds.

Source Reduction:

  • Plastic grocery bags are now .5 mils thick, down from 2 mils when they were first made.

  • A flexible detergent pouch weighs 85% less than a rigid plastic bottle.

Recycling Markets:

  • Plastic lumber is the primary market.

Raw Material Specifications:

  • Sort by resin, color and printed versus non-printed bags for highest value.

  • Main contaminants are labels, dirt and food.


“Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2005 Facts and Figures,” U.S. EPA, Office of Solid Waste, Washington, D.C.,

American Plastics Council,

Flexible Packaging Association,

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

* Data based on 2005 EPA estimates unless otherwise noted.