As a nation, we’re doing a pretty good job collecting plastic bags and wraps for recycling. But we need to do a much better job creating demand for this recycled plastic film.
Plastic film recycling has grown for 12 consecutive years and has more than doubled since 2005, climbing to 1.3 billion pounds in 2016. However, recent turbulence in the markets for recycled film – in particular, China’s current reluctance to import film for recycling – requires those of us in the professional recycling world to help stimulate domestic markets.
In other words, it’s time for us to help increase demand for products made with recycled plastic film. Because if companies, governments and consumers aren’t buying recycled, then we’re not really recycling.
How the system breaks down
The mantra of waste management remains: reduce, reuse, recycle. If you don’t need a bag, don’t take a bag. Reuse anything you can. And recycle what you can’t.
But perhaps we have diminished the pivotal role that demand plays in driving recycling success. Without strong, healthy markets for the materials we collect, collecting materials could become an exercise in futility.
Looking specifically at plastic film, today the material type enjoys more than 20,000 collection points in the U.S., predominantly large retail outlets. These typically storefront recycling bins collect plastic bags from groceries, newspapers, produce, bread and dry cleaning as well as plastic wraps that protect cases of water bottles, packs of diapers, bathroom tissue, paper towels.
From a communication standpoint, the How2Recycle Store Drop-off Label has made it easier to understand which film packaging can be collected at these points.
But without a market for the 1.3 billion pounds of plastic film currently collected, our recycling system breaks down. Collecting more plastic film without stimulating more demand is not sustainable. Demand must rise to absorb the supply.
Many companies already make valuable products from used plastic film. For example, Trex is the largest consumer of used plastic film in the U.S., producing myriad types of plastic lumber for residential, commercial, and government markets.
In addition, more and more companies plan to use recycled plastic film to make products, such as trash-can liners and crates.
So how can the recycling sector help spur demand in tangible ways? Below are some steps to consider:
- Encourage the purchase of products leveraging recycled film by your or associated entities or offices.
- Revise purchasing guidelines to require the purchase of these types of products.
- Use (and encourage associated entities to use) the Buy Recycled products directory.
- Publicly encourage and recognize companies that create products using recycled plastic film.
- Sign up to be a WRAP Champion with the Wrap Recycling Action Program (WRAP).
- Encouraging local businesses to join the Association of Plastic Recyclers’ Demand Champions Program.
- Working with state economic development offices to facilitate support for local businesses to develop new end markets for plastic film;
- Communicate to residents the proper handling of plastic bags and wraps, including keeping them out of curbside bins, returning them to store recycling bins, and looking for the How2Recycle label.
- Encourage residents to use the Buy Recycled products directory and to seek out products made with recycled plastic film.
- Encourage residents to reuse plastic bags and packing bubbles/pillows.
- Encourage residents not to litter and to dispose of dirty or wet plastic bags in trash cans, not recycling bins.
Recycling professionals do not need to do this alone. WRAP provides expert resources to help recycling professionals encourage proper recycling of plastic film – including increasing demand – to prevent waste and protect the environment.
As a WRAP Partner, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes, “There are great gains to be made for the environment, our society, and our economy by working together” to properly recycle plastic film.
We agree. We encourage all recycling professionals to rally around plastic film recycling, recommitting to increased collection and helping jumpstart broader efforts to boost demand for used plastic film.
Let’s really recycle by putting in the energy to make sure all recovered film has a reliable path to becoming a new product.
Shari Jackson is director of film recycling at the American Chemistry Council/Flexible Film Recycling Group and can be contacted at [email protected]. Nina Goodrich is director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and executive director of GreenBlue and can be contacted at [email protected].
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Resource Recycling, Inc. If you have a subject you wish to cover in an op-ed, please send a short proposal to [email protected] for consideration.