Can We Double Plastic Film Recycling by 2020?

Mother and daughter in produce section of grocery store using plastic bag for fruit

Previously published in Plastics Engineering and posted with permission from the Society of Plastics Engineers.

The recycling of plastic wraps and bags is relatively new, but it’s growing very rapidly. We Americans recycled a bit more than 1.2 billion pounds of plastic wraps and bags in 2015 (most recent figures)—that’s an increase of nearly 84 percent since the first report was issued in 2005.

The recycling rate for this plastic “film”—a category that includes flexible product wraps, bags, and commercial stretch film made primarily from polyethylene—has reached 15 percent according to a 2014 U.S. EPA report. Today there are more than 18,000 grocery and retail stores that collect plastic film for recycling, and 90 percent of Americans have ready access to one of these locations. Plastic film is recycled into new products such a plastic lumber, backyard decking, and grocery bags.

To help jumpstart these efforts, the American Chemistry Council’s Flexible Film Recycling Group (FFRG) in 2015 established a goal to increase plastic film recycling to two billion pounds by 2020, which essentially would double the amount recycled in 2013.

So … will we get there in time?

Two recent public opinion surveys demonstrate a key obstacle—and a key opportunity—for achieving this goal.

Five hundred adult residents in both Mecklenburg County, NC, and the state of Connecticut were asked if they were aware that certain plastic items should be taken to grocery or retail stores to ensure proper recycling. In both surveys, only half said yes. And only 20 percent could correctly identify the plastic items that are supposed to be taken back to stores for recycling.

These results follow a 2014 survey by Plastics Make it Possible® that found that while nearly two-thirds of Americans say they recycle on a “regular basis,” only 32 percent say they have returned plastic shopping bags to stores for recycling.

Of course, without broad awareness of recycling opportunities, broad participation is unlikely.

But … we can look at it another way. If 80 percent of Americans do not know what plastic film can be recycled, imagine the vast opportunity to increase recycling. And if more than two-thirds have never returned their excess plastic grocery bags to stores for recycling, imagine if they did. The recycling rate and amounts recycled could climb sharply.

So … how do we make this happen?

Enter: the WRAP campaign. The Wrap Recycling Action Program (WRAP) is an initiative of the FFRG that works with key partners such as state and local governments, major grocery and retail stores, universities, businesses, waste haulers, and non-profits to increase plastic film recycling. WRAP aims to boost proper recovery of plastic film through local and state campaigns that raise awareness of what and where to recycle.

WRAP helps federal, state, and local governments leverage the existing recycling network of the more than 18,000 store-based locations across the country and supports retailers’ efforts to educate customers about what to return to storefront recycling bins. WRAP provides communities with logistical and technical assistance for recycling both consumer and commercial plastic film. WRAP also provides free educational and outreach tools and other materials for raising awareness through activities such as advertising, media relations, social media outreach, and customer relations.

As an added bonus, there is a complementary and significant benefit from WRAP: diverting plastic film from curbside recycling carts helps prevent the film from fouling up the machinery at recycling facilities. This can increase the efficiency of recycling facilities and reduce the expense of recycling.

To help expand this initiative nationally, the EPA joined the WRAP campaign—in November 2016, in a partnership with FFRG and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC). SPC is a founding partner of WRAP and created the How2Recycle label that many consumer product companies and retailers are placing on their plastic packaging.

The partners are working together to:

  • double plastic film recycling to two billion pounds by 2020,
  • double participation in film recycling,
  • reduce film contamination in recycling facilities by half, and
  • expand recycling access for small generators of commercial film.

The partners will build local support and infrastructure for plastic film recycling, engage and expand recycling stakeholders, expand labeling of recyclable plastic packaging, and develop messaging and communications strategies to promote plastic film recycling.

Other WRAP partners and champions include the Association of Plastics Recyclers, the cities of Vancouver, WA, and Milwaukee, WI, the states of Connecticut and North Carolina, and the retailers Safeway/Albertsons, Price Chopper, and Wegmans. Additional retailers involved in regional WRAP campaigns include Harris Teeter, Publix, and others.

So … can WRAP increase awareness and recycling?

Snapshots from various regional WRAP campaigns show encouraging results:

  • a 126 percent increase in plastic film collected over a six-week timeframe;
  • a 75 percent reduction in plastic bags incorrectly being placed in curbside recycling carts among residents who received information on cart tags;
  • a 44 percent reduction in plastic film entering a local recycling facility; and
  • eighty percent of grocery store shoppers feeling positive about stores that collect plastic film.

Encouraging indeed.

So … the WRAP campaign is rapidly gaining momentum and new partners. Several additional states are expected to announce WRAP partnerships in 2017. Consumers are embracing opportunities to recycle plastic film.
As a result, all signs show that doubling the amount of plastic film recycled by 2020 is indeed doable … and the WRAP partners and champions are working hard to make it happen.

For more information: plasticfilmrecycling.org/wrap