U.S. plastic film and bag recycling is on the rise, jumping 14 percent in 2010 to 971.8 million pounds, according to a new report.
The increase is the first of more than 3 percent since 2006.
“We are excited about the dramatic jump,” said Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets for the Washington- based American Chemistry Council.
“The communication is getting out that plastic bags can be recycled. A lot more bags have messages on them that say ‘bring it back,' “ Christman said in a phone interview.
However, Mark Murray, executive director of Sacramento, Calif.-based Californians Against Waste, said the percentage increase is misleading.
“By every measure, plastic bags remain a recycling failure,” Murray said.
“The reported growth in plastic bag recycling volume of 27 million pounds from 2009-2010 was completely swamped by the [Environmental Protection Agency's] reported 220 million-pound growth in plastic bag generation during the same period,” Murray said.
“The volume of plastic bags generated and disposed [of] grew by a substantially greater volume than recycling in 2010,” he said.
The amount of plastic film and bags collected in 2010 jumped 14 percent, from nearly 854.4 million to 971.8 million pounds, according to data compiled by Moore Recycling Associates Inc. in Sonoma, Calif., and released Feb. 6 by ACC.
By comparison, the cumulative percentage increase the previous three years was just 5.2 percent, with yearly individual increases of 2.24 percent in 2007, 0.25 percent in 2008 and 2.64 percent in 2009.
To an industry faced with increasing legislative efforts to ban or tax plastic bags, any jump is important. Still, the more important number may be the one showing the breakout of plastic bags: The amount collected and recycled increased 27 percent, to 126 million pounds.
One legislative source agreed with Murray's criticism of the recycling numbers.
“The number of plastic bags being collected is very low compared to the 100 billion bags handed out in the United States each year,” the source said. “The percentage increase only looks good because pounds of plastic bags collected in the U.S. is a relatively low number.
“Besides, the industry still hasn't adequately addressed the litter issue, or made a strong enough commitment to recycled content,” the source said.
The report itself cautioned that part of the increase in plastic bag collection numbers in 2010 may simply be the result of better reporting. “A portion of the increase in [plastic] bag recovery may be due to exporters providing more accurate recovery data,” it said.
As a result, those improved recycling numbers may not be enough to dissuade legislators from pursuing bans. Plastic bags already have been banned in 51 cities and 12 counties in the U.S., and more than a dozen communities — including Austin, Texas, Sacramento and San Diego; and the state of Washington — are actively pursuing bans.
“This report demonstrates that pumping additional resources and public relations into the myth of recycling plastic grocery bags is doomed to fail,” Murray said. “It's time for the industry to cut their losses on a product that will likely be banned from the marketplace before the end of the decade, and focus on the recycling of those plastic products and resin types that are likely to survive.”
He also questioned the accuracy of the recycling rate in the report. “California is the only state that actually monitors plastic bag and film recycling, and their latest report  shows that just 3 percent of plastic bags generated are recycled,” Murray said.
Even assuming some growth in 2010, he said, “the actual recycling rate for plastic bags remains at best less than 5 percent in California and even lower elsewhere — this despite having a retailer-funded plastic bag take-back opportunity at virtually every grocery store in California.”
He also claims that an estimate in the report that plastic bags represent 40 percent of the film collected at retail is not supported by facts; the California report shows plastic bags represent less than 6 percent, he said.
But ACC remains optimistic that plastic bag and film recycling is moving in the right direction, and that the new flexible film recycling group it has created will spur even more recycling.
Formed at the beginning of the year, the Flexible Film Recycling Group has six founding members: resin producers Dow Chemical Co. and ExxonMobil Chemical Co.; plastic composites decking manufacturer Trex Co.; shrink, food and protective film packaging manufacturer Sealed Air Corp.; SC Johnson & Son Inc., whose products include plastic wrap and sandwich bags; and Avangard Innovative, which makes densifiers and balers and runs PET and high density polyethylene recycling plants, as well as material recovery facilities.
“Brand owners are looking for opportunities to recycle and use this material,” said FFGR director Shari Jackson. “We are looking at changes we can make in the commercial infrastructure to make the recycling of films and bags easier, especially for smaller and medium-sized generators.
“There is also a need for clear labels on products so consumers are aware of the ability to recycle.”
In fact, North America recyclers want more film and bag material for making recycled resin for customers, even as plastic bags remain at the center of legislative and environmental fervor.
Reversing a four-year trend, more recycled film and bags stayed in the U.S or Canada — 53 percent — than were exported overseas for the first time since 2006. “The more material staying in the U.S. is consistent with the growth in the economy and the recovery in end markets,” ACC's Christman said.
U.S. and Canadian firms purchased 515 million pounds of the nearly 972 million pounds of plastic bags and film recycled in 2010 in the U.S. They also boosted their purchases in all specific categories of film collected — commercial, dirty and clean agricultural film and mixed film, defined by Moore Recycling Associates and ACC as mixed-color, clean PE film, including grocery bags.
Those 515 million pounds represent a significant jump from the past three years. Even so, that volume is still less than the 591 million pounds that U.S./Canadian recyclers purchased in 2006, when less material — only 812 million pounds — was collected and recycled. It is also way below the 870 million pounds in processing capacity of the 20 U.S. recyclers cited in the report.
Not surprisingly, utilization in those plants is still low, 55 percent, though it improved by 10 percentage points from 2009. Yet it is far below 2006's estimated utilization of almost 74 percent.
By end market, composite lumber accounted for 42 percent of all end uses; film and sheet applications, due to increased use of recycled resin in agricultural film, 21 percent, the report said.
Comparing end-use applications to previous years is difficult, since the report now calculates those percentages based on material volume that remains in the U.S., whereas previous calculations covered all film and bags recycled, including those that went to export markets.
Of categories of film, only the collection of commercial film — stretch wrap and polyethylene bags like dry cleaning bags — declined in 2010, by 8 percent. Yet it continues to account for the majority, or 58 percent, of all plastic film and bags recycled in the U.S.
All other categories (which showed decreases in 2009) increased in 2010, including mixed film, which accounted for 28 percent of all film collected, the second-largest category.
Research for the report was based on data from 20 U.S. and three Canadian companies that process post-consumer film, and 41 firms that export material.
Last year's report estimated U.S. drop-off sites for plastic bags and film at nearly 12,000; the current report provided no estimate.