Bag Boom

Recycling of plastic bags trends upward.

Americans reached an all-time high for plastic bag and film recycling in 2007, recycling an estimated 830 million pounds, compared to 812 million pounds in 2006. According to the National Post-Consumer Recycled Plastic Bag and Film Report released by the Arlington, Va.-based American Chemistry Council (ACC), the 2007 total reflects a 27 percent increase from the 652.5 million pounds collected in 2005.

The report, conducted by Sonoma, Calif.-based Moore Recycling Associates, attributed the jumps to an increased awareness by consumers and businesses of recycling opportunities and stronger demand for such services. The report is based on data gathered from 18 domestic processors or end-users of plastic film and 45 export companies.

“More Americans are recycling plastic bags and film than ever before, driven by a growing recognition that plastic is a valuable resource — too valuable to waste,” said Steve Russell, managing director of the Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council, in a press release. “Recovered plastic bags and wraps can be recycled into many useful products, including durable backyard decking, fencing, railings, shopping carts and, of course, new bags. Increased recycling of bags and film is good for business and good for the economy.”

Downturns in the residential construction market, according to the report, have not changed the fact that the domestic composite lumber industry remains a strong factor in the scrap plastic film market. Plastic film exports increased from 221 million pounds in 2006 to 463 million pounds in 2007.

“Over the past several years, [our company] has processed and used a tremendous amount of recycled plastic, and that demand has led us to partner with the public and private sector on innovative recycling programs,” said Dave Heglas, director of material resources for TREX, a northern Virginia company that uses recycled plastic bags to manufacture green building materials, in a press release. “We have recycled over 2.5 billion pounds of plastic over the last 10 years into lumber substitutes for outdoor decks.”

Curbside film moved relatively well in 2007, the report continues, with nearly 21 million pounds collected from curbside programs. That number might be lower than the actual amount collected, according to the council, because many material recovery facilities (MRFs) on the West Coast pulled curbside-collected film from their sorting lines in order to market them to export markets.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that approximately 12 percent of plastic bags and film used each year is recycled. The amount of post-consumer recycled film that was used for new film and sheet applications increased 6 percent.

Government legislation, most notably in California and New York, mandating that certain stores and retailers must provide plastic bag collection services has played a part in the collection increases.

ACC expects more states and municipalities to follow suit this year.

“With the shift in material toward the export market rather than domestic, and the challenge of collecting survey data from export buyers, the total reported collection for 2007 is likely conservative,” according to the report. “This is especially true since the number of collection programs grew dramatically, with an increased number of retailers offering plastic bag recycling to consumers.”

In February, ACC also released its first-ever annual report on non-bottle rigid plastics recycling in the United States, which also was conducted by Moore Recycling Associates.

This category includes items or packaging such as high-density polyethylene tubs, polypropylene cups and food containers, pallets, crates, carts, five-gallon buckets, and electronic housings.

Based on a survey of 31 post-consumer plastic processors, end-users and exporters, at least 325 million pounds were recycled in 2007. Moore Recycling also surveyed 81 MRFs nationwide to estimate the amount of material available in the marketplace.

Of the 325 million pounds recycled, 204 million pounds were exported, primarily to China. In North America, most of the recycled material was used to manufacture new products such as pallets, crates, composite lumber and gardening items.

According to the report, the demand and price drop of rigid plastic scrap in October highlighted the need to expand domestic markets, and the potential domestic market is very large.

“ACC continues to promote recycling by providing technical support, increasing access to collection programs, and promoting greater consumer awareness,” Russell said in a press release. “This inaugural report on the recycling of non-bottle rigid plastics provides an important baseline from which we can track future progress..”