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Industry pushing unity on bag recycling

By: Mike Verespej

May 19, 2008

Creating a collection infrastructure for recycling plastic shopping bags and getting consumers to recycle them are separate challenges complicated by the fact that the industry must rely on the help of two parties it can't control — retailers and consumers.

``Everyone in the whole industry is working to increase at-store recycling,'' said Keith Christman, plastics division senior director at the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Va. ``Our main effort is to increase the awareness that plastic bags can be recycled and are a valuable resource.''

Christman hopes the new logo and messages about recycling introduced as a tool kit last month by its Progressive Bag Affiliates group will be the impetus for developing a uniform structure for collection and a consistent message for consumers.

The association is working with grocer and retail industry trade associations in California and New York City to promote the program and added that it may be a while before stores adopt unified signage programs on a national scale. ACC said its role was to support the grocers by making it easier for them to communicate with their customers and making it easier for their customers to recycle.

The tool kit includes signs for the top of recycling bins, window posters, decals to place near bags at checkout lines, as well as buttons that cashiers can wear to remind people that plastic bags can be recycled.

There are also materials that retailers can download and order: a 12-step strategy sheet for implementing plastic bag and film collection and recycling, training tips for baggers, as well as worksheets for calculating the volume of material that can be recovered and the cost of recycling vs. the cost of disposal.

But, ultimately, much depends on how many retailers adopt the program and how well and how quickly it motivates consumers to recycle.

``The big issue is going to be the education, because too few people know that plastic bags can be recycled and what they can be recycled into,'' said Nina Bellucci Butler, a project manager with Moore Recycling Associates Inc. in Sonoma, Calif., which manages ACC's bag recycling Web site.

``We need to tell people to recycle. We need to tell people to conserve. People need that constant message that it can done,'' she said. ``If we don't push the message on conservation,'' legislators, communities and activists will continue to explore anti-plastic bag initiatives.

In addition to cities considering bans, Los Angeles County, for example, has said it will shift to a ban if recycling and reduction targets for 2010 and 2013 aren't met.

Likewise, a measure now in the appropriations committee of the California Assembly would require retailers to impose a 25 cent fee on plastic bags if a 70 percent recycling rate is not achieved by 2011. That bill, from Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys, would modify the bill that went into effect last July 1 mandating in-store recycling and prohibiting fees on bags.

Just how far recycling rates are from that target will be clearer when the first recycling rates, reported by some 6,000-7,000 California grocers as part of that state's mandate, are released by the California Integrated Waste Management Board.

Those numbers for the last six months of 2007 were due to CIWMB by May 15. But the information may not become public until late in the year.

``The earliest they may be available would be the fall,'' said Lorraine Van Kekerix, division chief for CIWMB's compliance evaluation and enforcement division.

To process the data, the state first must do a bale characterization study to determine how many plastic bags are in a typical bale — since some grocers bale all their recycled plastics into commingled bales. California State University in Sacramento will do that study this summer.

CIWMB estimates that just 1-5 percent of 19 billion plastic carryout bags used annually in the state are recycled. Nationwide, Plastics News estimates that 2 percent of plastic bags are recycled.

In New York state, Albany, Suffolk, New York City and Westchester County also have mandated in-store recycling programs and will be looking closely at whether such mandates increase recycling, as will cities that have put voluntary recycling and reduction efforts into place after considering bans.

``We need to get awareness out there,'' said Judith Dunbar, director of environmental and technical issues for packaging and consumer products at ACC's plastics division. ``Awareness and a consistent message in graphics and signs get people to use recycling bins.

``You have to have the recycling bins out in the open, visible and have them set out in the proper place, not stuck in a corner,'' she said. ``Signage is the most crucial element. If you can get pretty consistent signage with the same look so that people recognize it, eventually people will see it.''

Another thing ACC thinks will help is that four PBA-member bag makers — that together account for 90 percent of U.S. bag production — have agreed to use the new logo and message for retailers that participate in recycling program. But not all retailers recycle plastic bags, and not all plastic carryout bags are U.S.-made.

Also in ACC's tool kit is a poster of plastic facts — such as the volume of film and bags recycled in 2006 was enough to manufacture nearly 1.5 million average-sized composite decks; though, 68 percent of that was from stretch film and poly bags, with less than 4 percent coming from plastic bags.

``One of the things we always find with consumers is that they get more engaged in recycling when they find out what products will be made from the recycled material,'' Dunbar said.

The industry also is encouraged by results from pilot projects in March at six Giant Food stores in Annapolis, Md., and Baltimore. In that test, most stores placed decals on checkout stands near bag racks, two posters in highly visible front windows, two recycling bins in the front of the store and a plastics fact sheet on recycling bins. Also, cashiers wore recycling buttons and memos explaining the program were displayed in employee lunchrooms, Butler said.

She said 45 percent of the shoppers surveyed said they noticed the new signage and bins.

``Given the level of messaging already present in groceries, 45 percent is a significant level of recognition,'' Butler said. Most shoppers also said, however, that it is ``hard to remember to use a reusable bag or to bring bags back for recycling,'' underscoring, she said, that people ``need reminders.''

``Some of the Giant stores said it seemed to increase recycling of plastic bags,'' Dunbar said. But she added that establishing effective collection at stores isn't just putting out bins and signs.

``You need to train cashiers to say something,'' she said. ``Ask them to say to customers: `Do you know there is a plastic bag recycling bin at the store that you can bring your plastic bags back to?'

``If they did that one day a week, it might increase consumer awareness.''

Dunbar also said store managers need to ``get together with employees about what you are going to be doing and show them what they should look for. Big grocery chains have a lot of stretch film they can mix with the bags.''

ACC has not yet set any goals for how much the tool kit might be able to improve recycling rates.

``We want to see where it takes off before we set any goals. If it is talked about, we would be pleased,'' she said.