Profiles in Garbage: Plastic Film

Thinner plastic bags have helped source reduce plastic film waste.

Chaz Miller, Semi-retired, 40-year veteran of the waste and recycling industry

April 19, 2012

3 Min Read
Profiles in Garbage: 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. Individual bags are light in weight. For instance, 70 t-shirt bags weigh one pound. A 500 square foot plastic lumber deck constructed of 2x6 lumber uses 140,000 bags.

Plastic film provides 5 percent of all packaging, 29 percent of plastic packaging and 12.2 percent of all plastic in the waste stream. 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, yet 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 him at: [email protected].


Plastic Film Facts*


  • 4.91 million tons of plastic film, or 1.96% of MSW by weight.

  • 0.98 million tons of trash bags, or 0.4% by weight.

  • 0.77 million tons of bags and sacks, or 0.3% by weight.

  • 3.16 million tons of wrap, or 1.3% by weight.

  • 31.77 pounds per person per year.


  • 450,000 tons, a 9.2% plastic film recycling rate (includes trash bags, which are not recycled).

  • 450,000 tons, or a 11.5% plastic bag, sack and wrap recycling rate.

  • 486,000 tons of post-consumer film, including bags (2010 industry figures).

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.

Burned or Landfilled:

  • 4.46 million tons, or 2.7% of discarded MSW by weight.

  • Highly combustible resin averages three times higher BTU than MSW.

Landfill Volume:

  • 13 million cubic yards (cu.yd.) of plastic film, or 3.1% of landfilled MSW.

  • 2.4 million cu.yd. of trash bags.

  • 4.4 million cu.yd. of bags and sacks.

  • 6.2 million cu.yd. of wrap.


  • Landfilled plastic film weighs 670 lbs. per cu.yd.

  • A 30-in. x 42-in. x 48-in. bale of plastic film in a horizontal baler will weigh approx. 1,100 lbs.

Source Reduction:

  • Plastic grocery bags are now .5 mils thick, down from 2 mils initially.

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


  • 47% was exported.

  • 22% was made into plastic lumber.

  • 11% was made back into film and sheet products.

  • 20% went to other uses.

Raw Material 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 non-plastics.


“2010 National Postconsumer Plastic Bag & Film Recycling Report,” Moore Recycling Associates/American Chemistry Council,

“Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2010,” U.S. EPA, Office of Solid Waste, 2011,

Measurement Standards and Reporting Guidelines, National Recycling Coalition,

* Data is from 2010 EPA estimates, except where noted.

About the Author(s)

Chaz Miller

Semi-retired, 40-year veteran of the waste and recycling industry, National Waste & Recycling Association

Chaz Miller is a longtime veteran of the waste and recycling industry.

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