The amount of film and plastic bags recycled in the U.S. in 2006 increased 24 percent from the previous year. Almost 70 percent of the recycled material came from commercial-grade stretch wrap and poly bags, according to a March 25 American Chemistry Council report.
The report did not break out a specific number for recycled plastic shopping bags. But calculations by Plastics News indicate only around 32.1 million pounds of plastic bags - or nearly 2.14 billion plastic shopping bags - were recycled in 2006.
That suggests the plastic shopping bag recycling rate in the United States is just above 2 percent, and the bags represent slightly less than 4 percent of the 812 million pounds of film recycled in 2006.
The PN calculations were made based on data from ACC; Trex Co., a Winchester, Va.-based plastic lumber extruder that uses recycled film as a feedstock; and Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based environmental group.
Almost 552.2 million - or 68 percent - of the slightly more than 812 million pounds of film and bags recycled in 2006 were clear, clean polyethylene film that includes stretch wrap and poly bags, which the report classified as commercial-grade film.
Plastic bags were lumped into a mixed film category that accounted for 27 percent - or almost 219.3 million pounds. Around 16.2 million pounds of agricultural film was recycled and almost 24.4 million pounds of film was collected at curbside, the report said.
Of the slightly more than 812 million pounds collected, more than 590.9 million pounds was used domestically, with the rest exported - a ratio similar to the one in 2005.
Moore Recycling Associates Inc. of Sonoma, Calif., assembled the report by using data from 38 companies that export scrap film and 13 end users or reclaimers, including bag manufacturer Hilex Poly Co. LLC of Hartsville, S.C., and composite lumber manufacturers Trex and Advanced Environmental Recycling Technologies Inc. of Springdale, Ark.
``The increase in film and bag recycling is across-the-board,'' said Keith Christman, senior director of packaging for the plastics division of the Arlington, Va.-based ACC in a telephone interview March 25. ``There is an overall increased awareness of recycling and the markets themselves are doing a lot of advertising.''
The report did not calculate recycling rates, citing the lack of an acceptable methodology to determine the volume of material entering or exiting the U.S. as transport packaging, packing bags and protective packaging.
Christman said the report also did not break out specific numbers for plastic bags because manufacturers ``don't break it out. They weigh the material coming in and that's it.''
Still, he said he expects there will be ``much more'' bag recycling when 2007 film and bag numbers are compiled because of the mandatory in-store recycling at California grocery stores enacted in July 2007. The 2007 report will be available near year-end, the ACC said.
``We are expecting a continued growth in plastic bag and film recycling, both from mandatory programs and increasing recognition of the ability to recycle,'' Christman said, with significant potential for increased recovery of stretch film such as pallet wrap.
``Mandatory recycling and voluntary recycling is the direction that municipalities and legislatures are headed. States and municipalities seem to be gravitating toward that,'' he said, pointing to a similar mandate that goes into effect in New York City on July 23.
There also are numerous legislative proposals to ban bags. The California counties of Sonoma and Mendocino and the California cities of Berkeley, Palo Alto, Santa Monica, San Jose and Fremont are among the municipalities considering plastic bag bans, along with Hartford, Conn., and the state of Connecticut.
Judith Dunbar, director of environmental and technical issues for packaging and consumer products at ACC's plastics division, said in addition to in-store recycling, about 100 communities, almost all of them in California, now offer curbside recycling of plastic bags.
``But one of the reasons you don't want to push curbside'' is the need to use water to clean the material, she said. ``You have to take into account that water is a precious resource that we need to conserve.''
In addition, according to the report, the value of film collected through curbside programs is usually about 75 percent less valuable than material collected through retail collection programs.
A historical pricing chart from Moore Recycling Associates on scrap plastic prices underscores that. Prices for baled truckload quantities of clear polyethylene film, according to Moore, were roughly 25 cents per pounds in July 2007. The price for mixed film, which includes plastic bags, was about 18 cents per pound, and about 5 cents per pound for curbside film.
``Prices remain steady and there are strong indicators that demand continues to outpace supply,'' said the report. But it added ``given the low quality of most curbside film and the limited capacity in the U.S. to wash highly contaminated material, curbside collected film will likely have very limited marketability.''
``Due to contamination, film and bag material from these programs primarily are sold into the export market,'' said the report. However, it added that relying solely on the export market to handle curbside and dirty material was ``risky,'' as there is little domestic capacity to wash film.
That could change, however, when AERT opens its plant to process agricultural and curbside film in Watts, Okla., near the end of 2008. The plant will have capacity to reprocess 200,000 pounds of film daily.
The report said 64 percent of the film and bags recycled are used for lumber and other construction material, 27 percent are exported, 6 percent are used for packaging (including bags), and 3 percent is unknown.