Plastic bag and film recycling continues to be very much a work in progress, with the domestic industry growing but not enough to overcome the closing off of China and other export markets, according to a new report.
The American Chemistry Council, which released its 2018 National Post-Consumer Bag & Film Recycling Report on Aug. 18, pointed to positive trends like 10 percent growth in U.S. and Canadian processing of recovered films — to a record level — and ongoing investment.
But the report also noted major challenges, like weak markets hurt by low virgin resin pricing and exports dropping 19 percent as China and other countries dramatically limited their imports of waste plastic over pollution concerns.
One analyst estimated that only 6.8 percent of plastic film was recycled in the U.S. in 2018.
It's a market pulled in different directions: Domestic processing of film for recycling hit a record high, but the amount of the material actually collected in the U.S. and Canada fell to its lowest level since 2010, as exports tanked.
ACC, which commissioned the report, noted that the amount of film recycled within the U.S. and Canada grew for the sixth consecutive year, to a record 694.7 million pounds.
At least 1 billion pounds of plastic film and bags were collected for recycling in 2018 in the U.S. and Canada, essentially holding steady from 2017.
"These data demonstrate an upward trend in U.S. plastics recycling and an ongoing recovery from the disruption of China Sword creating new opportunities in the U.S.," said Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets for ACC's plastics division. "We're tracking $5.2 billion in announced investments in U.S. plastics recycling infrastructure over the last three years, and as a result, we're starting to see growth in domestic processing.
"Of course, more is needed, and our industry is working hard to continue this trend through investments, new technologies, and ongoing commitments to use more recycled content," he said.
The report said the amount collected in the U.S. and Canada in 2018 dipped nominally, by 0.5 percent, to 1.002 billion pounds.
That's well below the 1.32 billion pounds collected at the high point, in 2016 when export markets were still much stronger, but well above the 652 million pounds collected in 2005, when the report started.
The report also noted significant challenges. It said most of U.S. processing is focused on clean, dry PE film, leaving the country "not well positioned" to process all the material available from retail bags and film collected from local government recycling programs.
It outlined a series of recommendations in a section that said it reflected the "expertise and industry knowledge" of the company that wrote the report, More Recycling in Sonoma, Calif.
"The return on investment in new capacity faces challenges given the cost of virgin resin, low importance placed on recycled content, or energy savings, and the low cost of disposal in America," it said.
It recommended putting more focus on recycled content, including incentives or requirements for recycled content, and more attention to consumer education and other measures to increase collection infrastructure.
"Reclaimers are struggling to compete with virgin resin, including off-spec, which is dampening the market demand for [post-consumer recycled] film," it said. "Without demand there is a disincentive for improving the collection and processing infrastructure."
Environmental groups that follow recycling issues pointed to low overall recycling rates for plastic film.
Jan Dell, an engineer and founder of the group The Last Beach Cleanup, estimated from Environmental Protection Agency data that 6.8 percent of film and bags were recycled in the U.S. in 2018, which she called "dismal."
Greenpeace, which released a report in February looking at challenges government recycling programs had with lower value plastics, argued that there is "essentially no value and no recycling market for post-consumer soft plastics."
"Insisting that we all pretend plastic bags are recyclable is making recycling as a whole less efficient, and is part of what is driving the erosion of services across the United States," said John Hocevar, oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA.
The report included a detailed accounting of the sources and uses of plastic film for recycling.
Lumber and decking was the largest end market, taking 46 percent of the material processed by U.S. and Canadian reclaimers, with film and sheet applications accounting for 34 percent and injection molding 12 percent.
Two markets saw gains in the amount collected for recycling: clear PE film and retail bags. Clear PE film grew 20 percent, with 472 million pounds collected for recycling, while PE bags grew eight percent, to 242 million pounds.
Collections fell in other markets, such as colored film, agricultural film and material from curbside recycling programs.
It said the amount of plastic film scrap exported in 2018, 307 million pounds, was less than half the 704 million pounds at its high point in 2016.
More estimated that in 2018 the U.S. had 1.2 billion pounds of plastic film reclamation capacity.