More than 90 percent of the U.S. population lives within 10 miles of a plastic bag/film drop-off collection center or has access to curbside recycling for plastic bags, according to a new study conducted for the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council.
But that access “is not being used to its full potential,” according to the report conducted by Moore Recycling Associates Inc. in Sonoma, Calif.
“This is largely due to a lack of education and outreach promoting film, wrap and bag recycling, and very limited understanding about the connection between bag recycling, and wrap and film recycling,” said the report, released April 12 by Washington-based ACC.
That misunderstanding isn't just among consumers. It also extends to individuals who work at retail drop-off locations, according to the report.
“We were very specific in asking if the retailers accepted plastic bags, and plastic film and wrap,” said the report. “We found that many did not understand what plastic film and wrap meant [and] thus would tell us they did not accept it.
“After we explained specifically what was meant, some would say yes,” said the report. “[But] whether or not they accepted the wrap was capricious and largely dependent upon who was staffing the customer service desk at any particular moment.”
The report described “significant gaps in awareness about collecting various types of film,” and confirms “there is not enough education regarding plastic bag recycling and even less knowledge about film recycling beyond bags — even among those locations that accept the material.”
The study identified 15,023 drop-off locations in the U.S. that accept polyethylene films such as stretch wrap, product wraps, and plastic sacks and bags for recycling. Most of the sites are major grocery chains, and retailers such as Target and Lowe's.
Nearly three-quarters of those drop-off centers, said the report, also collect other plastic film or wraps such as case wrap from bulk snacks and beverages; wraps from products such as diapers, napkins, paper towels, bathroom tissue, and baby wipes; furniture and electronics products wrap; bags for dry cleaning, newspapers and bread; cereal box liners; sealable food-storage bags that no longer have food residue; and shipping envelopes with paper labels and stickers removed.
As a result, the report calculated that 72-74 percent of the U.S. population has access to film recycling, either through curbside collection or because they live within 10 miles of a drop-off facility.
“We're thrilled that so many Americans have access to recycling,” said Steve Russell, ACC's vice president of plastics. “We look forward to working to increase consumer awareness, so we can recycle even more of this material.”
In 2010, plastic film and bag recycling rose 14 percent to 971.8 million pounds, which was the first annual increase of more than 3 percent since 2006. The cumulative percentage increase in the years 2007-09 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.
Plastic bags accounted for an estimated 126 million pounds, or about 13 percent, of the total amount of film recycled in the United States in 2010.
That relatively low amount of plastic bag recycling has triggered 58 U.S. cities and 12 counties to ban plastic bags, including the major cities of San Francisco and San Jose, Calif.; Austin, Texas; Seattle; and Portland. Three other U.S. communities have taxes on plastic bags.
Curbside collection, said the report, remains the smallest portion of the infrastructure for recycling plastic film and bags. The report said a 2010 survey of curbside programs, using 2008 census data, found that only 10.8 percent of the U.S. population had curbside access to bag and film recycling.
Film collected in curbside programs is often costly to process — at material recovery facilities and subsequently by reclaimers — because it is often heavily contaminated. The resulting bales are less valuable because the material requires more cleaning and handling to make it usable, the report noted.
Also, many MRFs “rely on rotating screens to sort containers from fiber [and the] film often wraps around the screens, clogging equipment.”
The report expressed a note of optimism that the public's understanding film and plastic bag recycling “may be about to change.”
Earlier this year, for example, ACC formed the Flexible Film Recycling Group, whose initial goals are to improve consumer education by having more bags, films and wraps include recycling information or labels; and to expand the film and plastic bag recycling infrastructure.
FFRG, in conjunction with the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers, is also working to develop a “store drop-off” label specifically for plastic bags, film and wrap.
In addition, APR is developing design-for-recycling guidelines for plastic film, and will soon launch a working group to provide technical resources to the ACC and SPC to aid their film-recovery efforts.
“Education is the next critical step,” Russell said. “Awareness and convenience are key to changing behavior, and we frequently see that when awareness meets convenience, consumers are very willing to recycle their plastics.”
ACC suggests that consumers visit its www.plasticbagrecy cling.org website to locate drop-off locations in their communities.