Latest statistics show big increase in US film and bag recycling

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WASHINGTON (Feb. 6, 10 a.m. ET) — Plastic film and bag recycling in the United States is on the increase, jumping 14 percent in 2010 to 971.8 million pounds, according to a new report.

The annual increase is the first of more than 3 percent since 2006.

“We are excited about the dramatic jump,” said Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets for the American Chemistry Council, in a phone interview.

“The communication is getting out that plastic bags can be recycled. A lot more bags have messages on them that say ‘bring it back,’” he said.

However, Mark Murray, executive director of the Sacramento, Calif.-based Californians Against Waste, said the percentage increase is misleading.

“By every measure, plastic bags remain a recycling failure,” Murray said.

“The reported growth in plastic bag recycling volume of 27 million lbs from 2009 to 2010 was completely swamped by the [Environmental Protection Agency’s] reported 220 million pound growth in plastic bag generation during the same period,” Murray said.

“The volume of plastic bags generated and disposed grew by a substantially greater volume than recycling in 2010,” he said.

The amount of plastic bags and film collected in 2010 jumped 14 percent from nearly 854.4 million to 971.8 million pounds in 2010, according to data compiled by Moore Recycling Associates Inc. in Sonoma, Calif., and released by ACC on Feb. 6.

By comparison, the cumulative percentage increase the previous three years was just 5.2 percent, with yearly individual increases of 2.24 percent in 2007, 0.25 percent in 2008 and 2.64 percent in 2009.

To an industry that is faced with increasing legislative efforts to ban or tax plastic bags, any jump is important. Still, the more important number in the report may be that the amount of plastic bags collected and recycled increased 27 percent, to 126 million pounds.

One legislative source agreed, with Murray’s criticism of the recycling numbers.

“The number of plastic bags being collected is very low compared to the 100 billion bags handed out in the United States each year,” the source said. “The percentage increase only looks good because pounds of plastic bags collected up in the U.S. is a relatively low number.

“Besides, the industry still hasn’t adequately addressed the litter issue, or made a strong enough commitment to recycled content,” the source said.

The report itself cautioned that part of the increase in plastic bag collection numbers in 2010 may simply be the result of better reporting.

“A portion of the increase in [plastic] bag recovery may be due to exporters providing more accurate recovery data,” it said.

As a result, those improved recycling numbers may not be enough to dissuade legislators from pursuing bans as plastic bags have already been banned in 51 cities and 12 counties in the U.S, and more than a dozen communities — including Austin, Texas; Sacramento and San Diego, Calif., and the state of Washington — are actively pursuing bans.

“This report demonstrates that pumping additional resources and public relations into the myth of recycling plastic grocery bags is doomed to fail,” Murray said. “It’s time for the industry to cut their losses on a product that will likely be banned from the marketplace before the end of the decade, and focus on the recycling of those plastic products and resin types that are likely to survive.”

He also questioned the accuracy of the recycling rate in the report.

“California is the only state that actually monitors plastic bag and film recycling, and their latest report [2009] shows that just 3 percent of plastic bags generated are recycled,” Murray said.

Even assuming some small growth in 2010, he said, “the actual recycling rate for plastic bags remains at best less than 5 percent in California and even lower elsewhere — this despite having a retailer funded plastic bag take-back opportunity at virtually every grocery store in California.”

Murray also argued that an estimate in the report that plastic bags represent 40 percent of the plastic film collected at retail “is simply not supported by the facts.”

“The California report shows that plastic bags represent less than 6 percent of plastic film collected at retail,” he said. “This adjustment would substantially reduce the volume of plastic bags reported as recycled” in the ACC report.

But ACC remains optimistic that plastic bag and film recycling is moving in the right direction, and that the new flexible film recycling group it has created will spur even more plastic bag and film recycling.

Formed at the beginning of the year, but not officially announced until Feb. 6, the FFRG has six founding members: resin manufacturers Dow Chemical Co. and ExxonMobil Chemical Co., plastic composites decking manufacturer Trex Co.; shrink, food and protective packaging manufacturer Sealed Air Corp.; SC Johnson, a manufacturer of household products, including plastic wrap and sandwich bags; and Avangard Innovative, which makes densifiers and balers and operates PET and high density polyethylene recycling plants, as well as material recovery facilities.

“Our goal as a group is to continue to drive these increases,” said Shari Jackson, director of the FFRG. “Brand owners are looking for opportunities to recycle and use this material. We are looking at changes we can make in the commercial infrastructure to make the recycling of films and bags easier, especially for smaller and medium-sized generators.

“There is also a need for clear labels on products so consumers are aware of the ability to recycle plastic wrap” on packages they buy, she said.

Indeed, more recyclers in North America want more film and bags to make recycled resin for their customers, even as plastic bags remains at the center of a legislative and environmental fervor.

Reversing a four-year trend, more recycled film and bags stayed in the U.S or Canada — 53 percent — than was exported overseas to other markets for the first time since 2006.

“The more material staying in the U.S. is consistent with the growth in the economy and the recovery in end markets,” Christman said.

U.S. and Canadian companies purchased 515 million of the nearly 972 million pounds of plastic bags and film recycled in 2010 in the United States. They also increased their purchases in all specific categories of film collected — commercial, dirty and clean agricultural film and mixed film, which is defined by Moore Recycling Associates and ACC as mixed color, clean PE film including grocery bags.

Those 515 million pounds represent a significant jump from the last three years when the amount available to U.S. and Canadian recyclers for purchase after export totals were subtracted were 363.7 million in 2009, 362.4 million in 2008 and 367.6 million in 2007.

But despite that big jump, those 515 pounds purchased are still less than the 590.9 million pounds that recyclers in those two countries purchased in 2006 when far less material — only 812 million pounds — were collected and recycled.

In addition, it is way under the processing capacity of just the 20 U.S. recyclers, which the report estimates to be 870 million pounds.

Not surprisingly, capacity utilization of those plants is still low, 55 percent, even though it improved by 10 percentage points from 2009. And it remains far below 2006, when capacity utilization was estimated at nearly 74 percent.

By end-market, composite lumber accounted for 42 percent of all end uses, and film and sheet applications 21 percent. Film and sheet benefitted from increasing use of recycled resin in agricultural film, the report said.

Comparing those market shares by end-use application to previous years are difficult, as the report now calculates those percentages based on the amount of material that remains in the United States. It previously calculated the amount that went in end-use markets based on all film and bags recycled, including those that went to export markets.

Of the different categories of film, only the collection of commercial film—that is, stretch wrap and polyethylene bags, such as dry cleaning bags—declined in 2010, by 8 percent. But it continues to account for the majority, or 58 percent, of all plastic film and bags recycled in the U.S. A year ago, it represents 71 percent of all film that was collected.

All other categories of film collected—after decreased collections in 2009—had increases in 2010, including mixed film which accounts for the second largest amount of film, 28 percent, that is collected after commercial film.

But, even with all the positives in the report, there is keen awareness of the industry that too much material is being left unrecycled.

“Large volumes of readily recyclable film are still being missed [not collected] because the collection infrastructure is not yet comprehensive enough to handle the small-to-medium generators,” said the report.

Christman views that as an opportunity.

“The growing awareness of the ability to recycle plastic bags and film should continue to drive dramatic increases,” he said. “There are great opportunities for continued growth” in plastic bag and film recycling.

Research for the report was based on data from 20 U.S. companies and three Canadian companies that process post-consumer film and 41 companies that export material. In 2009, the report was based on 50 companies that export material and 20 processors or end users of film material.

The number of reprocessors who provide data for the report has increased slightly each year, from 18 in 2007 to 19 in 2008, 20 in 2009 and 23 in 2010.

But the number of exporters reporting data has fluctuated greatly from 45 in 2007, to 60 in 2008, to 50 in 2009, and 41 in 2010.

Unlike last year’s report which estimated that were nearly 12,000 drop-off locations for plastic bags and film in the U.S., the current report did not provide any estimate on the present number of drop-off locations.