Besieged by efforts to ban and tax plastic carryout bags, the four biggest U.S. plastic bag makers said April 21 that they intend to use 40 percent recycled content in plastic carryout bags by 2015.
The Full Circle Recycling Initiative by Advance Polybag Inc., Hilex Poly Co. LLC, Superbag Operating Ltd. and Unistar Plastics LLC sets a goal of 25 percent post-consumer recycled content for disposable, single-use plastic bags by 2015.
Based on weight, reaching 40 percent recycled content would be the equivalent of using 36 billion recycled plastic bags to make new plastic bags.
This bold move will conserve natural resources, reduce waste and stimulate plastics recycling throughout the nation, said Cal Dooley, president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council, in a news release. Plastic bag makers have listened to policy makers and customers and are launching an initiative that will make a lasting positive impact on American communities.
ACC said using 40 percent recycled content would save enough energy to heat 200,000 homes, as plastic bags in the U.S. are primarily made from natural gas.
Some environmentalists scoffed at the plan. It is a little too little, a little too late, said Mark Murray, executive director of Sacramento-based Californians Against Waste. Based on the actions of the public and policy makers at the state and local level, we don't believe that there will be 36 billion single-use plastic grocery bags left to be recycled in 2015.
The single-use plastic grocery bag is an anachronism whose cost to society, by any reasonable measure, far exceeds its value, Murray said.
The four companies included in the effort account for 80 percent of plastic bags made annually in the U.S., according to ACC. But how many bags that represents is unclear. Based on data in a 2003 dumping petition, 90 billion plastic bags were used in the U.S. in 2003, with 30 billion of them imported, the ACC said. Environmentalists counter that assertion: Citing data from the Environmental Protection Agency's characterization of municipal solid waste in 2006, they peg annual U.S. plastic bag use at 150 billion.
Because of legislative and corporate initiatives, the number of bags used in the United States has shrunk slightly and could be shrinking further.
* Supermarket chains operating in California, where 19 billion bags were estimated to have been used in 2007, have reduced their purchase of single-use carryout plastic bags.
* San Francisco, Malibu and Fairfield, Calif.; and Westport, Conn., have banned plastic bags, while Seattle residents will vote Aug. 18 on whether to place a 20 cent tax on plastic bags at checkout lines. A 5 cent fee on plastic bags in Toronto goes into effect on June 1.
* Eight states are currently considering proposals to place fees from 5-25 cents on plastic disposal bags, including California, where two separate proposals to enact 25 cent fees on paper and plastic bags have been approved and sent to the Assembly Committee on Appropriations.
* Ikea Canada said it would stop carrying plastic bags July 1. Two nationwide U.S. grocers, Whole Foods Market Inc. and Trader Joe's, also no longer offer plastic bags. About half of Trader Joe's 326 stores and 30 percent of Whole Foods' 175 U.S. stores are in California.
The targets set by the four companies, all members of ACC's Progressive Bag Affiliates, are similar to recycled-content provisions of a producer responsibility bill that PBA supports in California. That bill would create mandates for recycled content for single-use carryout plastic bags of 20 percent by July 2011, 25 percent by July 2013, and 30 percent by July 2014.
The recycling goal announced April 21 will create demand for 300 million pounds of recycled material, according to Keith Christman, senior director of packaging for Arlington, Va.-based ACC's plastics division.
In 2007, about 830 million pounds of plastic film was collected in the U.S., with about 15 percent of that or nearly 125 million pounds estimated to be from plastic shopping bags, said ACC's most recent report on plastic film recycling. ACC said 90 billion plastic bags weigh about 1.2 billion pounds and that if the industry meets the 40 percent target, film extruders would use roughly 480 million pounds of recycled material in their bags. About 300 million of that 480 million pounds would be from recycled plastic shopping bags, based on the 25 percent target.
Walgreens Co., Publix Super Markets Inc., the Food Marketing Institute, Arizona Retailers Association, California Retailers Association, Illinois Retail Merchants Association, Ohio Grocers Association, Texas Retailers Association and Keep America Beautiful announced their support for the Full Circle Initiative.
Sharon Kneiss, vice president of ACC's products division, said the four manufacturers estimate it will cost $50 million to change manufacturing processes and implement the technology needed to make disposable carryout bags with recycled content of 40 percent. Each manufacturer will need to determine what they will have to do to implement their own effort, she said. This is an unprecedented program.
Still, the initiative is not as far-reaching as efforts already under way at some smaller bag manufacturers.
For example, 25 percent of the bags currently made by Command Packaging in Vernon, Calif., are made with recycled content, including its Encore line of carryout bags that are made from 80-100 percent recycled content. Command Packaging CEO Pete Grande said his company plans to have 50 percent of the company's bags made with recycled content by the end of 2010.
The Full Circle announcement did not include any new recycling initiatives. Separately, PBA member Hilex Poly announced that it used more than 100 million pounds of recycled plastic in its plastic bags in 2008 and that it has placed a total of 30,000 recycling bins in grocery stores during the 15-year life of its Bag-2-Bag recycling effort.
ACC did not estimate what additional plastics would be collected by 2015 because of its initiative. We haven't done a projection on that, and, at this point, it is really tough to speculate, Kneiss said. This program encourages getting [that material] right back into the system. We anticipate there will be a significant increase.
New York, Rhode Island, California; New York City and five counties in New York state; San Juan Capistrano, Calif.; and Red Bank, N.J., have mandatory plastic bag recycling programs.
ACC said bags with recycled content which will be more of a green, gray or buff color than current bags would be cost-competitive with bags that do not contain recycled content. Selling them could have some challenges, though.
When Command Packaging opened its recycling center in November, Grande said recycled-content bags were more expensive to make than virgin-resin bags. But he said many customers were focused on price, and wanted to see savings not higher prices.