For a long time, when people in the plastics industry talked about plastic grocery bags being recyclable it was a mostly theoretical exercise.
Sure, they're recyclable. They're thermoplastic. There's nothing wrong with polyethylene, right?
But the reality was that most bags were not recycled. Some were made into low-grade plastic lumber. Some were exported to China. Most had a brief second life as a lunch bag, a trashcan liner or a doggie clean-up device. Then they ended up in the trash.
Some, unfortunately, ended up as litter. And that was a big problem.
By volume, single-use grocery bags are not a huge part of litter and marine debris. Look at the results of any beach cleanup, and you'll see that bags are way down the list of problem products.
But bags are extremely visible and an easy target for well-intentioned people who want to do something to make the planet a cleaner place.
So bans and taxes started to appear. And they've continued to pop up — like dandelions in a spring Ohio lawn.
Now some plastics processors are pulling out all the stops to recycle plastic bags.
Last year we wrote about Hilex Poly Co. LLC, the largest U.S. plastic bag maker. The Hartsville, S.C., company operates the world's largest closed-loop plastic bag recycling facility, in North Vernon, Ind.
Hilex isn't alone. Just last week, we wrote about Trex Co. Inc., which uses thin films in its high-end wood-alternative decking.
Trex started recycling bags and film in grocery stores in 2008, and the company has spent a lot of time and effort to iron out some technical issues. Now Trex is beefing up recycling in Southern California — ground zero for the bag-ban issue. It hopes to expand the plan to all 50 states.
Thanks to the efforts of companies like Hilex and Trex, more than 1 billion pounds of post-consumer plastic bags and films were collected for recycling in 2011 in the U.S. (There's no doubt that current figures are even higher, but these are the most recent numbers available.)
Plastic bag recycling got off to a slow start. For too long,
the plastics industry battled bag bans by talking about the advantages of source reduction and energy savings (vs. paper bags), hygiene (vs. reusable bags) and pocketbook issues like the importance of plastics industry jobs.
Now that recycling is real and successful, we'll see if it's too late.
When Plastics News staff reporter Gayle S. Putrich asked Mark Murray of Californians Against Waste about the latest Trex project, he told her: "While we wish Trex the best of luck in their current efforts, there is zero chance that new balers are going to save the day for single-use grocery bags in California. Whether through local ordinance, state law or consumer preference, single-use plastic grocery bags will not exist in California in the next three to four years."
At this point, it may take a miracle to prove him wrong.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of "The Plastics Blog."