WASHINGTON — In 2011, more than 1 billion pounds of post-consumer plastic bags and films were collected for recycling in the United States, according to a new report.
That's a 4 percent increase from 2010 and a 55 percent increase from the 652.4 million pounds collected in 2005, according to the National Postconsumer Plastic Bag & Film Recycling Report, released Feb. 25 by the American Chemistry Council.
The report attributed the increase to growth in plastic and composite decking. Deck manufacturers accounted for 55 percent of the post-consumer film that was recycled, and they purchased 120 million more pounds of material in 2011 than they did in 2010.
The second largest market, film and sheet manufacturers, held steady at 100 million pounds in 2011, accounting for 16 percent of the total.
For the second year in a row, the majority of the post-consumer film collected in the United States was processed in the U.S. and Canada — 58 percent or 583 million pounds — with the remainder exported overseas.
Domestic volume was up 5 percent from 2010.
Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, said there are some positive notes for environmentalists in the data, but they have to look past the modest increases in recycling rates.
"There's two bits of good news in the sense that the processing rate… has gone up a modest amount, 24 million pounds. And there's a shift… in terms of a greater percentage of the amount collected is going to North American processors rather than being shipped overseas. But there is still a lot of plastic film, plastic shrink-wrap, that is very recyclable that gets collected at the back of stores that is not being recycled," Murray said.
Moore Recycling Associates Inc. of Sonoma, Calif., has collected data for the annual bag and film recycling report for seven years.
The largest category of recycled film is what Moore Recycling calls "commercial clear" — clear, clean polyethylene film including stretch wrap and poly bags. The material accounts for 47 percent of the film that is recycled, a figure that is falling. Exactly how much it has dropped is difficult to pinpoint, though, in part because since this year's survey includes a new category, mixed color commercial film.
The report also notes that changes in the shipping market may have attributed to the decline for commercial clear film, including warehouse consolidation and adjustments in how retailers prepare pallets for shipment.
Murray said there needs to be more focus to recover commercial clear and other post-industrial, pre-consumer films.
"We need to get that behind-the-store shrink-wrap back into the recycling infrastructure," he said. "And really, this 'post-industrial, pre-consumer' plastic represents a success story that 10 years ago those were all corrugated boxes, which are much worse than shrink wrap for the environment," Murray said.
"It seems to me that we're moving in the right direction," he said.
The report estimated that 151 million pounds of post-consumer bags and sacks were recovered in 2011, a 19 percent increase from 2010. But the report cautioned that the lack of consistent data created uncertainty in this category.
The report also noted increases in other film categories, including curbside film collection. But it noted that the amount of curbside film being used domestically actually decreased in 2011. Curbside film is challenging to reprocess and the cost often exceeds the value of the end product, according to the report.
Information for the report was based on recovery data from 19 U.S. and three Canadian end users of post-consumer film and 37 companies that export consumer film.
ACC noted that there are currently more than 15,000 U.S. locations where consumers can bring their used polyethylene bags and wraps to be recycled, primarily at large grocery and retail chains.
"In-store collection is absolutely critical for recycling plastic bags, wraps and other flexible film packaging," said Steve Russell, ACC's vice president of plastics, in a news release.
"The infrastructure is there. The plastic film industry is now working to help grocers and retailers maximize the collection of this valuable material by sharing tools and best practices and through consistent customer education," he said.