Plastic bag recycling rates suck, and recycling is not the answer to the plastic bag problem in the first place. But the plastics industry continues to justify bag production by insisting that voluntary recycling programs are the solution to plastic bag litter and pollution. And this week, after the U.S. EPA released the recycling rates for 2010**, one plastic bag manufacturer is claiming, falsely, that plastic bag recycling has increased. Actually, the opposite is true.
Hilex Poly, the company that sued ChicoBag this year for allegedly reporting false information about plastic bags on its web site (charges which were never proven — but that’s another story) writes in a December 1 blog post, “Thanks to an industry-wide push, we’re happy to announce that the recycling of polyethylene (PE) bags, sacks and wraps increased to 15 percent in the last year!”
But Barbara Mason from ChicoBag analyzed the numbers and came up with a very different conclusion. She explained that the category of “polyethylene bags sacks and wraps” is a large EPA classification that includes two different kinds of plastic: HDPE and LDPE/LLDPE. Understanding these two different kinds of plastic is important to see how Hilex has fudged the numbers.
LDPE/LLDPE Plastic Recycling Increased by 4%
The broad EPA category of “bags, sacks, and wraps” includes LDPE/LLDPE (#4) plastic, which is mainly plastic stretch wrap, the kind that manufacturers use to wrap pallets for delivery to the store.
It also includes things like bread bags, dry cleaner bags, and the thicker, less crinkly bags that department stores use. Recycling for this kind of plastic did increase a tiny bit last year, from 13.4% in 2009* to 17.6% in 2010**. Those rates are still very low, given that 2,380 thousand tons of it entered the waste stream in 2010! But the reason that the rates are going up is because there is an established recycling system in place for the stretch wrap, which stores collect and ship out in bulk for recycling. It has nothing to do with consumers bringing back their bags to be recycled. How do I know? Check out the next category…
HDPE Plastic Recycling Decreased by 2%
HDPE (#2 plastic) is what most cheap disposable plastic store bags are made from. Without looking at the number printed on the bag, you can usually tell it’s HDPE by the high crinkly sound it makes when you squish it.
According to the EPA, the recycling rate for HDPE “bags, sacks, and wraps” in 2010** was a mere 4.3%, down from the almost equally dismal 6.1% in 2009*. These are the kinds of bags you see blowing down the street and caught in trees. Guess what kind of bags Hilex Poly makes. Well, according to the front page of Hilex Poly’s web site:
Hilex is an industry leading manufacturer of plastic bag and film products, focusing primarily on high density polyethylene (HDPE) film products and related services.
In its blog post, Hilex Poly credits its Bag-2-Bag recycling program and consumers “who have made recycling a priority” for the increase in recycling rates for ‘PE bags, sacks, and wraps.'” But the truth is that plastic bag recycling is actually DOWN. Consumer recycling programs are NOT working. And the increase is not even relevant to Hilex Poly’s industry at all.
Are More Customers Bringing Their Own Bags?
When I posted the ChicoBag article on my Facebook page, a few people wondered if the reason for the drop in plastic bag recycling was due to people bringing their own bags instead. That could be part of it. But it’s not the whole story.
In 2009*, 660 thousand tons of HDPE plastic bag waste were collected for disposal, and 40 thousand tons of it were recycled. Whereas, in 2010**, 690 thousand tons of plastic bag waste were collected, and 30 thousand tons were recycled. It’s possible that many of the people that used to recycle their plastic bags are now refusing plastic bags and bringing their own. But it’s also true that the total amount of plastic bag waste collected has gone up, not down. More people are taking plastic bags and more plastic bags are ending up in the landfill or incinerator. And don’t forget — these numbers only represent materials collected in the municipal solid waste stream — the stuff that didn’t end up in the environment.
Support Plastic Bag Bans or Fees
The recycling rates show that voluntary plastic bag recycling programs are not working. And as I’ve mentioned in other places on this blog, plastic “recycling” is problematic to begin with, since (Hilex Poly’s small bag-2-bag recycling operation notwithstanding) most plastic is downcycled in places like China. The only way to halt the rampant increase in plastic bag pollution is to either charge for them — which has been shown to dramatically decrease plastic bag consumption in places like Ireland and Washington D.C. — or ban them altogether. Of course, these measures MUST be combined with initiatives to promote reusable bags. Otherwise, consumers will just switch to paper, which has its own environmental impacts.
Check out ChicoBag’s “Track the Movement” map to find plastic bag initiatives around the world.
And read this excellent article by Stiv Wilson of 5 Gyres In Defense of Plastic Bag Bans.