Retailers collecting select polyethylene bags for recycling worry that accepting other types of PE film will open the door to contamination.
But when the Wrap Recycling Action Program (WRAP) began accepting all PE films at Safeway stores in Clark County, Wash., the fear proved unfounded. A later study found collection volumes increased by 125 percent there, but contamination only notched up from 1.75 percent to 3.70 percent, and the amount of food residue was negligible.
“It showed that you don’t need to be concerned. It showed no significant increase in contamination as a result,” said Shari Jackson, director of film recycling and the WRAP program at the American Chemistry Council (ACC).
The WRAP initiative is now quickly expanding across the country. After its experience in Clark County, Wash., Safeway is set to roll out its bolstered film-collection efforts at Oregon stores. Connecticut, meanwhile, recently joined the WRAP program.
Safeway, which recenlty merged with Albertsons, has 2,200 stores and is the second-largest grocery chain in North America.
WRAP, a program of the ACC’s Flexible Film Recycling Group (FFRG), provides tools to retailers and communities looking to persuade residents to recycle their film packaging at retail collection sites, instead of in curbside bins. When deposited in curbside bins, bags and other films make their way to materials recovery facilities, where they can gum up machinery and contaminate other streams of recyclable materials.
Clark County experience
The WRAP project in Clark County, home to Vancouver, Wash., was conducted in late summer and fall 2015. It included new retail collection bins, customer bag fliers and ample signage at 12 Safeway stores. The materials reinforced the message that films shouldn’t go in curbside carts but should be dropped off at Safeway. The effort came after a similar WRAP project in Milwaukee in 2014.
The Clark County project dovetailed with an earlier government-funded regional outreach effort, called “Recycling Done Right,” urging residents to remove glass, film, other “tangly things” and a host of additional contaminants from the single-stream carts, said Rich McConaghy, environmental resources manager for the City of Vancouver.
That campaign, in May 2015, included a video, 14,000 cart tags and 100,000 mailers. In June, an analysis found film contamination had dropped substantially in carts headed to the West Van Material Recovery Center, operated by a division of Waste Connections.
On behalf of the ACC, Moore Recycling Associates conducted an assessment of the impacts of the Vancouver WRAP efforts. Moore Recycling Associates also summarized results from an earlier study quantifying the impacts of the “Recycling Done Right” campaign. That earlier study, by Clark County and consulting firm Green Solutions, found a resulting 75 percent reduction in loose bags in curbside carts.
While a key message of the WRAP campaign was to keep film out of carts, McConaghy thinks the Recycling Done Right campaign was primarily responsible for the reduction in curbside cart contamination. The message seemed to stick.
“We did a follow-up three months later and the good behavior seemed to continue,” McConaghy said.
Moore Recycling Associates’ study, released in February, found the 12 Safeway stores had more than doubled their film collections. They saw a 500 percent increase in non-retail-bag film packaging (the “Beyond the Bag” material, as they called it). Contamination increased only slightly, and it took the form of sales receipts, hand-sanitizing wipes or other recyclable items, not food residue.
All the film leaving Safeway stores heads to a Trex manufacturing facility in Nevada, where it is sorted and recycled into composite wood products.
McConaghy said Clark County and its cities were sending letters out to other retailers to persuade them to bolster film-recycling efforts, but the response, so far, has been slow.
Meanwhile, Safeway plans to expand its participation in the program to its 133 Oregon stores. In April, the company did a soft launch, and it’s looking to work with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and local governments to put together a formal launch this summer, said Jackson, from the ACC.
“We’re very excited about having a retail partner that is so enamored with the program that they wanted to expand it,” Jackson said.
Holly Stirnkorb, senior program and policy analyst in DEQ’s Materials Management Group, said the department is looking at joining the WRAP program. Doing so would mean helping local governments access the program.
“There’s quite a bit of interest throughout the state not only in increasing plastic film recycling but also to get plastic (film) out of the curbside bins,” Stirnkorb said.
WRAP is seeing adoption elsewhere in the country, including in Connecticut, where the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) recently decided to partner.
“Recycling more plastic bags and flexible film packaging material will reduce solid waste disposal costs, reduce the contamination of other materials contained in single-stream recycling bins, and create jobs right here in Connecticut,” Robert Klee, DEEP commissioner, stated in a press release.
A focus of the new partnership between DEEP and the FFRG will be to increase the number of retailers accepting bags, wraps and other film packaging.
Connecticut is the third state partner involved in WRAP, which began in 2014. Wisconsin and North Carolina have also joined.