In-store collection of plastic film has increased, but terminology needs clarification.
The recycling industry has struggled for years to effectively educate consumers about the materials accepted in curbside recycling programs, among a range of other topics, citing ongoing difficulties in residents’ understanding of collection terms, methods and processes.
Inconsistent terminology is still one of the major barriers in recycling plastic film, says Nina Butler, managing director for the consulting firm Moore Recycling Associates Inc., Sonoma, California, which specializes in plastic packaging recycling.
“Getting on the same page in terms of terminology is critical,” Butler says. “Moving toward a more consistent language across the board is going to help us benchmark film plastics much better.”
While people may know they can recycle plastic bags, they don’t realize they can recycle film beyond bags, Butler says.
She explains that plastic film is a broad category of flexible packaging that includes bags, wraps and pouches. Most of this material is polyethylene (PE), whether linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE), low-density polyethylene (LDPE) or high-density polyethylene (HDPE). These materials can include bags for produce, bread, newspapers, dry cleaning, retail and food storage, as well as case wrap and napkin, paper towel, bathroom tissue and diaper wraps.
Shari Jackson, director of film recycling for the Washington-based American Chemistry Council (ACC) Flexible Film Recycling Group (FFRG), a self-funded group that seeks to increase recovery of flexible PE film, wraps and bags, agrees with Butler that consumers lack awareness of the types of film beyond plastic retail bags that are recyclable.
She adds, “Education is a key component. We’re creating a platform where they can get these tools to help educate [consumers about] what’s recyclable.”
One instrumental tool to help educate consumers on packaging is the How2Recycle Label, Jackson says.
The program, a project of GreenBlue’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), Charlottesville, Virginia, gives consumers honest and easy on-package recycling instructions. The label first appeared on packages in late 2011, and the program now has nearly 40 member companies. (For more information on the How2Recycle Label, see the May 2015 article “Gaining Momentum” at www.RecyclingToday.com/rt0515-how2recycle-trends.aspx.
Butler refers to the How2Recycle Label as “one of the most important developments” in the film plastics recycling sector.
“There are over a dozen major brands now using the label on film packaging, and that’s one way to directly educate the consumer. Having more brands and retailers working together is incredibly critical.”
Involving brands and retailers brings together two significant stakeholders to educate consumers about recycling plastic film, Jackson agrees.
Sealing end markets
Plastic film that once shielded boats in the winter will soon serve as a shield for automobiles on U.S. highways.
The Ohio Clean Marinas, a voluntary program that encourages marina operators and boaters to use best management practices to keep Ohio’s water resources clean, says the blue and white plastic film that was once used to seal off boats from the elements during the cold season will be turned into guardrail blocks on highways. The group also cites garbage bags, construction plastic and other products as potential end markets for the shrink wrap.
The recycling service is free to boaters at the 11 marinas in Ohio’s Ottawa County that are participating in the program. Boat owners who are not members of a participating marina can recycle shrink wrap for $5 through another program called Recycle Run. More than 30 marinas in Ohio are participating this year.
The Ohio Clean Marinas program says it has collected more than 2.2. million pounds of shrink wrap for recycling since its efforts began in 2006.
Mondo Polymer Technologies Inc., Marietta, Ohio, processes the shrink wrap.
“We are hopeful that with the increased interest from boaters in keeping the material out of landfills, combined with advances in recycling technologies, that we can improve the program and increase our number of participants once again,” says Sarah Orland, Ohio Clean Marinas program coordinator.
Key stakeholders also have backed the only nationally established collective collaborative for plastic film, Wrap Action Recycling Program (WRAP), which has been developed to make it easier for state and municipal governments, brands and retailers to increase awareness of opportunities to recycle used PE wraps at local stores.
FFRG has partnered with the SPC and the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers, Washington, to support WRAP. As a founding partner of WRAP, Jackson says FFRG provides support and resources that can be used to drive public awareness and involvement in plastic film recycling at stores and other drop-off centers.
“There are a lot of people who are motivated to recycle this material, they just need to know how to do it the right way,” Jackson says. “We want to make these campaigns very easy to replicate in other areas.”
Available resources include posters and signage for use above collection bins as well as campaigns to highlight which types of film beyond bags belong in collection bins and those that should not be included.
Jackson says retailers are essential partners in WRAP and in plastic film recycling in general as they have had long-established storefront programs to collect bags.
“Many grocer retailers have been doing this for 10-plus years,” Jackson says of in-store collections. “We’re looking to leverage this to add more film packaging to the mix,” she adds.
“It’s important to support the markets and what they need,” Jackson says, “which is why right now at-store collection is the best way to capture that film for recycling as opposed to curbside.”
Since most people go to the grocery store anyway, Jackson says expanding in-store collection for plastic film is ideal.
She explains, “We want to make them understand that not only is this valuable material, it’s highly recyclable and should be recycled.”
Butler says the greatest growth opportunity for plastic film also represents savings for communities, and that is broadening commercial collection infrastructure. She refers to at-store collection of postconsumer plastic film as “piggybacking” on an already established process.
“When you break out total film generation, the majority of it is generated in the back of the store. Instead of creating costs for communities, we use the reverse logistics and encourage consumers to piggyback on that as stores are already collecting.”
Moore Recycling cites in-store collection programs as a factor contributing to postconsumer plastic film recycling increasing by 116 million pounds from 2012 to 2013, when 1.14 billion pounds were recycled. In fact, 2013 saw the highest annual collection of plastic film for recycling since Moore Recycling began surveying plastic film recycling in 2005.
Despite these advances, legislation threatens to negatively affect in-store collection of film plastics, Butler says. For example, California’s Senate Bill 270, passed in 2014 and beginning July 2015, bans plastic retail bags and allows grocers to charge 10 cents for each paper and reusable plastic bag provided to their customers.
Butler says Moore Recycling conducted a spot survey of more than 2,000 locations in California that said they took in film for recycling. After the ban announcement, however, 40 percent of those companies had removed bins they had in place for film collection. When bags are banned, collection of all of the other postconsumer films may be affected, Butler suggests.
“Most retailers took the bins out because of the ban and didn’t think they had to offer any bag collection,” Butler says. “The biggest impact is potentially losing that infrastructure for film beyond bags. It’s one of those tricky unintended consequences.”
If store infrastructure for film collection is discontinued, “then that’s a major concern to us,” Jackson says.
In February, the American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA) announced that enough signatures had been submitted by Californians to put a referendum to repeal SB 270 on California’s 2016 ballot.
California voters will make their decision on the bag ban in November.
In addition to piggybacking on commercial collection efforts, Butler says the plastic film sector has been working with distribution centers to backhaul film scrap.
The sector also has seen interest from paper collectors who are looking to expand the materials they handle as the fiber market continues to shrink.
Plastic film recyclers also have worked with rehabilitation and vocational centers to employ people who remove film by hand from residential recyclables before the material heads to material recovery facilities (MRFs) for processing.
While the plastic film sector already works with big, wholesale distributors to collect large volumes of high-quality material, it needs similar networks for smaller generators, Butler says. Growing collection infrastructure for smaller businesses is the next challenge, she says.
“More collection for smaller businesses is where one of the barriers is at this point as providing that access to businesses that don’t have the space to bale material for end markets is important,” Butler says.
Clean and dry
While Jackson says the industry is at least five to 10 years away from curbside collection of film, she recognizes that some programs are in their infancy.
In an effort to save money and increase waste diversion targets, the city of Toronto expanded the list of plastic film accepted through its Blue Bin recycling program. Starting June 1, 2015, the city estimates that an additional 3,500 metric tons of plastic film will be collected as a result. The additional revenue from the sale of the film, reduced landfill costs and increased stewardship funding will offset the additional operating costs, resulting in an annual net savings of $8,500 per year, the city.
Canada Fibers Ltd.’s Toronto MRF is equipped with technology that can effectively recover a variety of plastic film.
Butler says much of the postconsumer plastic film generated today ends up at MRFs, which are less likely to cost-effectively handle it. “Every MRF gets film inadvertently as people are bagging other recyclables, and we have to address how to get material out of the MRF,” she says.
As plastic bags get wrapped around MRF equipment, the film gets incredibly dirty, Butler notes. Quality is key, and having clean, dry film is vital.
“It’s a cost and space issue, and MRFs have to have an area to store it clean and dry, which is difficult for a MRF,” she says.
While much comes down to economics, Jackson says, recycled film is primarily used in composite lumber. It also is used to create new film as well as piping and toys.
Butler says film recycling is a growth area provided there is a necessary emphasis on quality.
“The forecast is good as long as we’re focused on quality and keeping material clean and out of MRFs,” she says. “As the investment community sees more quality feedstock, I think we’ll attract more investment in our reclamation industry.”
The author is associate editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.