Post-consumer plastic bag and film collection in the U.S. is still increasing, but very slowly.
The rate of growth in 2009 was 2.64 percent, according to data released Feb. 28 by the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council. That's a larger increase than in 2008 when the growth rate was virtually stagnant at about 0.25 percent but just marginally higher than in 2007 when the amount of material collected increased by 2.24 percent.
But the only individual category in which film recycling actually increased was commercial film, defined as clear, clean polyethylene film including stretch wrap and bags. That segment was up 18 percent, according to the report.
The amount of material in the other film grades classified in the report dirty agricultural film, clean agricultural film, mixed film and curbside decreased, the report said.
The slow rate of increase could be bad news for plastic bag suppliers, which have been battling proposed grocery-bag taxes and bans with pledges to use more recycled content, and with programs encouraging consumers to recycle their bags.
In absolute numbers, the amount of bags and film collected in 2009 was 854.4 million pounds, up almost 22 million pounds from 2008. But the combined increase the past two years was just 24.2 million pounds, or a combined 2.9 percent, and the combined percentage increase the past three years was 5.2 percent, or about 42.4 million pounds.
That's in stark contrast to 2006, when the amount collected jumped from 652.5 million pounds to 812 million pounds, or 24.5 percent, over 2005.
For the second straight year, about 57 percent of the film and bags collected were exported, which means the amount available to U.S. and Canadian recyclers has been virtually flat the last three years: 363.7 million in 2009, 362.4 million in 2008 and 367.6 million in 2007. That's far below the 590.9 million pounds U.S and Canadian recyclers purchased in 2006, when far less of the collected material was recycled.
Recycled film is going into more applications than in the past. Composite lumber manufacturers used just 20 percent of the film collected in 2009, compared with 29 percent in 2008 and 37 percent in 2007. Film and sheet applications increased from 4 percent to 7 percent, with exports claiming 57 percent of the material.
Washington-based ACC estimates 2009 U.S. film reprocessing capacity at 800 million, and capacity utilization at less than 45 percent or 5 percent lower than in 2008.
The decline is related to the poor economy and depressed housing construction activity, which lowers the demand for products made from recovered film, such as lumber and piping, the report said.
In 2006, capacity utilization was about 73.8 percent.
Research for the report was conducted by Moore Recycling Associates Inc. of Sonoma, Calif., and based on data from 50 companies that export material and 20 processors or end users of film material.
That compares to 2008 when the report was based on data from 60 companies that export material and 19 domestic processors or end users of film material, and 2007 when the report was based on data from 45 exporters and 18 domestic processors or end users.