These are busy times in the film recycling industry. Spurred by strong markets and political threats, companies are building new recycling plants and cities are launching efforts to collect more of the material.
Major retail bag makers and their recycling partners are opening facilities. Recycling Revelations Inc., a new company, is opening a facility to recycle agricultural film in Orland, Ind., later this month.
The city of San Juan Capistrano, Calif., started collecting plastic bags in its curbside program in February. Several surrounding cities plan to join that effort, and other areas in the state, such as Los Angeles, are exploring whether to expand film recycling.
Growth is coming from much higher prices for the material, combined with governments - particularly in California - that see plastic bags and film as increasing litter and as a significant contributor to river and ocean pollution, since only about 5 percent of plastic bags are recycled.
San Francisco and California state officials have threatened taxes. Film is a big target: One recent study said about 25 percent of all plastic worldwide is used in film applications, from bags to diapers to construction membranes.
The San Juan Capistrano effort is the first in the country to collect bags from a curbside program and recycle them back into other plastic bags, said Rex Varn, president of bag maker Hilex Poly Co. LLC in Hartsville, S.C. Hilex is shipping the bags to its recycling plant in North Vernon, Ind., which will begin operating in the third quarter.
So far, the program has worked smoothly, and Hilex will look at building a recycling plant on the West Coast after the Indiana operation starts, Varn said.
``We do think the economic model will be positive, and more importantly we have some environmental issues we feel we as an industry need to address,'' he said.
The program is an add-on to the city's existing curbside program, with residents putting the bags into a specially made plastic sack that goes into their curbside recycling bins, said Ziad Mazboudi, the city's water quality and solid waste coordinator.
San Juan Capistrano is a small city of 35,000 in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, but Mazboudi said half a dozen surrounding cities with a total of about 250,000 people are looking seriously at duplicating the program.
Mazboudi, who led an effort to ban polystyrene products from his city's facilities, said Southern California is under pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce litter on beaches and in waterways.
Danny Schrager, president of Sun Valley Worldwide Inc. in Delray Beach, Fla., said technological improvements and better economics are making it possible to recycle a lot more plastic film.
Plastic lumber used to be the only market, but in the past few years better technology has made it possible to use recycled film in automotive parts, housewares such as trash pails, plastic pallets and other films, he said.
Sun Valley also is growing. The firm is adding a recycling line at its Morristown, Tenn., plant this month, recently set up a small operation in Kalamazoo, Mich., and is looking at putting a film recycling plant on the West Coast next year.
Schrager said the company is recycling about 1 million pounds of film and bags a month from its partnership with several of the largest bag makers in the United States: Vanguard Plastics Inc., Sigma Plastics Group and Advanced Polybag Inc.
``It's really starting to build,'' he said. ``Right now, conservatively, we are working on about 150 separate proposals for recycling plastic bags for retailers.''
It's difficult to predict to what degree the newfound interest in bag recycling could falter if the economics start to change, either from changes in underlying resin pricing or demand. The effort would be vulnerable to a downturn in the housing market, for example, because plastic lumber remains the most important end market, he said.
Still, the film market seems to be attracting new entrants, such as Recycling Revelations.
The company is targeting low density polyethylene agricultural films, a dirtier market that some other recyclers traditionally have stayed away from.
The firm plans to open a 35,000-square-foot plant in Orland, Ind., this month, said John Graham, a consultant to privately owned Recycling Revelations and brother of one its owners. The firm plans to supply the plastic lumber market, he said.
Graham said the firm is adapting washing technology developed by Italian pharmaceuticals company Indena SpA to clean plants where its drugs are made.
Recycling Revelations also operates a recycling plant in Cheboygan, Mich., that processes products such as LDPE and milk cartons, he said. The firm owns a majority stake in the Orland operation, which also is owned by a licensee, Meyer Recycling Inc.