As frequent readers know, my wish is that Durham, North Carolina where I live will begin to do two important things: begin replanting urban forest at a zero-loss rate of 8,800 trees per year and making curbside recycling inclusive of plastic bags and other forms of plastic film.
So far I only get kidding and rolled eyes, but little encouragement even from those intimately involved in each area. I’m not quite ready to call for a general strike where citizens put plastic bags and film in roll-out carts anyway, forcing them to be hand-separated, but I’m certainly not going away either. At least this would bring attention to how much reclaimed material this involves.
As with so much we take for granted, recycling is much more complicated than it sounds.
Last month a new report was prepared by Moore Recycling Associates Inc. on behalf of the American Chemistry Council and published on the amount of plastic bag and film recycling that was done in 2011. All plastic of this type is called “film” and includes stretch wrap used in packaging, mixed film such as grocery bags and a variety of other types including many used in agriculture.
In 2011 more than 1 billion pounds of pounds of postconsumer plastic film was collected for recycling, up 4% from 2010. Nearly 60% was reclaimed here or in Canada and the remainder exported to countries such as China for reprocessing into new products.
Recycled plastic bags increased by 151 million pounds or 19%. Hampered by the collapse of the housing construction market during the recession, plastic bag and film recovery has still increased nearly 55% since 2005.
It appears that 22% is collected at retail sites including dry cleaners, as it still is here in Durham but 3% is now collected curbside which is on the rise. By far the greatest proportion is collected commercially or 47% clear and 14% of mixed color.
In 2011, 55% of reclaimed plastic film including grocery bags were repurposed into lumber such as composite decking and fencing, up 120 million pounds from 2010. Another 29% was reprocessed into garden products, crates, pallets and piping and 16% went back into film or sheet plastic.
According to the report, there are challenges to curbside recycling of plastic bags and film. This includes finding material recovery facilities that can process it to “avoid contamination by dirt, non-polyethylene plastic, glass, paper and moisture.”
The report also notes, “One of the conundrums in plastic film recycling is that the film reclaimers that can handle fairly dirty material handle only one resin type (ie.g. LDPE) and the reclaimers that can handle a mixture of resins (i.e. LDPE, LLDPER, and HDPE) cannot handle dirty materials.”
As of 2011, U.S. processing capacity for recycling plastic bags and film was 835 million pounds. There are nearly 20 companies involved and the number is up and down. The report notes that around 70% of capacity is utilized.
It is obvious that the recycling expectations of consumers is not yet outpacing the capacity of reclaimers but it is a delicate balance when broken down by type of plastic.
It would give residents here in Durham encouragement if those over curbside recycling would be forthcoming about efforts to move in this direction and some of the hurdles involved. In the meantime, communication should stress the importance of dropping plastic bags and other types of film off at retailers.
One thing is clear, recycling of plastic bags and film in 2011 saved:
8.5 million trees
190 million gallons of oil
3.5 billion gallons of clean water
2.05 billion kilowatt hours of electricity and
44.5 million cubic feet of landfill.
If all products made from plastic film used full-cost accounting for ingredients, it would easily make reclaiming even more cost effective. Until then, here’s hoping Durham finds a way to get involved curbside.