The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

December 29, 2011

Plastic Bag Manufacturer Misleads Public About Recycling Rates. Here’s the Truth…

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.

LDPE plastic pallet wrap at Costco

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.

HDPE plastic bags

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.


*EPA Recycling Rates

**EPA Recycling Rates


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11 years ago

Maybe someone would teach them to wash those bags occasionally, and you don’t carry loose cookie s in them….that’s why they are in the box in the first place. People are so stupid and yet they blame mistakes on someone/something else

David McKay
11 years ago

So many great comments over here! The more people talk about this problem of plastic bags, the more bag bans we will have, and perhaps someday the change we are looking for will arrive…

To the person who bought deodorant an hour ago — try making it next time; it’s really quite simple to do and you will eliminate the plastic, and slow down just a little bit the consumption that has gotten us all into this mess in the first place!

My dad loves to recycle his plastic, and I just want him to use less of it in the first place — it has been difficult to get him to see my point of view. Perhaps in time…

11 years ago

Someone mentioned other uses for the ubiquitous plastic grocery bags (bathroom bin liners, cat litter, dog doo, etc…). It is one of the first thoughts I had when I decided to attempt to reduce waste (especially plastic), and seems to be a universal concern (it was also my sister’s first cry of dissent). Yet, what I have discovered is a whole world of alternatives I never paid attention to before! Because I am careful about what trash I produce in the first place, and have a compost bucket, I don’t have (much) stinky stuff in my kitchen (main) trash. So even though it doesn’t really need a liner, I use my dog’s food bag (or the paper bag my water softener salt comes in) to line it, just in case. There are lots of smaller “bags” I used to toss without even thinking about it that work for lining smaller cans, and even smaller ones (chip bags, cereal bags, etc) that work great as pet waste bags! It has been over 6 months, and I haven’t missed a single plastic grocery bag yet! : )

11 years ago

Thanks, Beth!! I went to the grocery store again today, but made sure to have my reusable tote with me and felt much better! I will make sure to always keep one in my purse from now on. I am so happy to read this blog and have been writing down ways I can reduce and eventually eliminate plastic use in my life! I’ve managed this long without a car so I figure I can get around plastic as well!!

11 years ago

Beth, I’ve been traveling so I’m not sure where I saw this TV ad – but it was Glad trash bags touting how their “new” superstrong or something bags are “Green” and have amazing waste reduction superpowers. Very unclear how Glad came to that conclusion – stronger but thinner bags or your bag won’t break so you won’t double bag or what — but somehow they came up with a graphic showing an amazing number of plastic bags (not ounces of plastic) saved. I don’t think they were talking about composting/bio plastic either.
If you use one trash bag a week, it’s still one bag a week no matter what bag you use.

Betsy (Eco-novice)
11 years ago

Just watched Bag It with my husband, after which he told me that we needed to stop buying sliced cheese in plastic bags and look for large blocks we can buy instead to cut down on plastic waste. Usually I’m the one pushing for these changes! Hopefully, it will also help him end his single-use bag habit — I Think San Jose ‘s plastic bag law just went into effect anyway. So fun to see your segment in Bag It– I told my husband, hey, it’s Beth Terry, I kind of “know” her. I hadn’t realized you were in it, although I should have guessed you’d be featured, being the plastic expert you are… You should probably make your own documentary… based on your book.

11 years ago

I meant I asked her to put those items in one of the same bags and I explained to her that I had a bit of a walk and wanted to make it easier on myself! Maybe if I start talking about plastic bags like I talk about cars, people will react more. I’m usually asked why I don’t have a car and people are kind of surprised to hear the answer.

11 years ago

I hate to admit that I’m not plastic-free, but will strive to it. I’ve had the reusable bags, gotten them for my family and a lot of it is we forget. But I have recently moved and downsized all my items to a couple suitcases and a small duffel (all filled with plastic-y clothes, I’m sure!) I don’t own a car as I believe they are terrible creations, promoting obesity, pollution, debt, greed, and all kinds of evils so I walk or take transit.

I live in the US so most people have a car (or two or three). What Laura says about educating the grocery employees is sooooo true!! Like I said, I forgot to bring a reusable bag. I did not have a lot of items, figured I’d get two bags, three maybe! But when I looked over the woman was about to start a fifth bag!! Less than 15 items!! And not big! I asked her to put those in another bag. Honestly, at the time, I wasn’t even thinking of the plastic but how on earth did she expect me to walk back home?

Being that I am crashing at a friend’s house until I get into apartments, at my next place I will strive to make sure it’s as plastic free as possible! I have tried to avoid the bags as much as possible, but never realized plastic was involved in so much else! I watched Plastic Planet yesterday and was appalled! Thank you for this blog, I will be following it!!

Kathy Dowsett
11 years ago

I have been against plastic bags and bottled water for a long time. I work part-time in a grocery store, and I cringe when people say ” Oh I left my bags in the car–I will buy some plastic bags”. The huge grocery store chains will never ban plastic bags, because it will inconvenience the customer, and the stores don’t want to listen to complaints—they do however charge for them—5 cents—that really stops people from using them!!!!

Bottled water is a crime!!! I have seen some videos that show that bottled water is nothing more than tap water. Check out you tube, they are on there. While you are there watch the “Great Pacific Garbage Dump”

It is time the “big boys” step up to the plate, take a stand, and make total bans on plastic bags.


11 years ago

The other day I was at the grocery store & I’d forgotten my cloth bag. I keep a plastic bag in my purse for those instances. I placed my bag on the conveyor with my 3 items. The checker girl toseed my bag in the trash! She said it was too thin and old (it was wrinkled but still good). I was too dumb founded to respond and just looked at her. Why the heck would I bother to bring my own bag, if I didn’t want to use it? I’m sure I could have used it as an oportunity to educate, but sometimes stupid people just completely blow my mind.

The holidays have been a complete plastic binge. My mil couldn’t just get me the subscription I asked for. She insisted on loading me down with tons of bodywash, polyester throws, highfructose corn syrup, and this tacky faux candle plastic fountain mess that takes bateries. (I also have a rubber singing fish, if anyone needs one.) I got home and looked at all of it and thought, I didn’t get one darn thing I liked. DH pitched the packaging so I can’t return it. I’m swimming in a mountain of crap and don’t want any of it. I can’t take it to the local thrift store because she shops there and I can’t regift it to my Granny b/c they talk on the phone! I’m going to take some of it to a homeless shelter, but that requires driving 45 minutes. I’m grown with a furnished house and I don’t need anything. I appreciate the thought but not the actual presents.

My Mom did better. She got me an egg poacher, which I have wanted for quite some time. However, it’s lined with teflon and the egg cups are plastic. The tag says it’s safe up to 200 degrees. Water boils at 212, so how do I use the egg cups safely? I’d like to have an egg poacher but not one that melts or poisons me. Taking it back requiers the same 45 minute drive and will they even have one in stainless? It’s such a random gadget, there can’t be much selection. I’m not ungrateful that these ladies spent time and energy to get me gifts, I love them both and wish we could have more time together. I’m frustrated that our market place is overflowing with cheap junk and folks who aren’t into the green thing are sold goods that aren’t worth bringing home. The last thing I want is to hurt their feelings. We visit all the time and it’s a small town, so it’s very easy get busted.

11 years ago

Something else to take into consideration is how many people reuse plastic shopping bags. I know many people who use them for bathroom garbage bin liners, pet refuse and just to toss stuff they don’t want loose in the trash bin. How are those bags counted in the numbers. I understand the ideal would be to not have plastic bags at all and to simply toss our trash unwrapped (I think this is more reasonable if we have composting programs in place) and people reused or recycled what can be).

11 years ago

M&S here in the UK charge 5p for bags for food, but not for other goods (clothing, etc) which feels at best half-assed. Plus, at Xmas, a cashier tried to give me a free bag to carry the 2 puddings I was fitting into the canvas bags I had. I got quite unseasonably grumpy with her…

11 years ago

Thank you, thank you, thank you, once again, Beth!
As 2011 is coming to a close, my mind is already steering towards what I would like to accomplish in the “Waste Wars” to benefit and educate my community in 2012. This one blog entry is an amazing wealth of information! You ROCK! And I just knew Hilex-Poly’s numbers were off. I may have mentioned this before, but they have a large plant here in Idaho, and they recently spent a bunch of $$ to sink an initiative spearheaded by a high school environmental group in Hailey, ID to ban plastic bags or set a fee for them. They bought huge newspaper ads, playing on fears about lost jobs and the down economy, and made outrageous claims. When one of their managers made a flippant comment in a TV news interview stating that bags were not part of the oceanic plastic pollution problem, I nearly smashed my tiny TV. I want to drag that guy by his ears onto a boat and take him out to see (pun intended). Now, I am reluctant to be in favor of shutting down an industry and having hard working Americans lose their jobs, and I do think our country needs to start producing more. We just need to be SMARTER about WHAT we produce! (We don’t want your widget anymore, Hilex-Poly, so start making a better widget!)

11 years ago

I recently discovered that every green thought and good intention that I have go out the window when I am stressed. when my mom was in the hospital, I failed at so many of the green habits I’d thought were well established. here’s hoping I’ll make up for it in the new year. and thank you for arming me with the facts on the importance of doing so!

11 years ago

sad. i think the increase in plastic ban proposals shows even if people aren’t acting better, there is more awareness and the people who care about it are raising the pitch.

my local coop does its part by giving store discounts for bringing bags. i don’t know how effective that is relative to a tax or a ban.

building a culture of reusable bags, and making it cool to have one on you at all times, i see as most effective. which i guess chicobags is doing pretty well. maybe in addition to that, helping people personalize their bags further. similar to bumper stickers, you could have bag patches that can be safety pinned into a bag with cool messages and slogans. using humor and wit in the slogans on those patches will really capture people’s attention. i don’t think the problem is people owning reusable bags, everybody gets them for free through some organzation they are affiliated with. its the habit of carrying them. in urban bike culture, some pants now have loops for carrying a small u-lock. something similar to that, a caribineer for carrying rolled up reusable bags.

i think people in city’s where pedestrian are more common, are already self conscious if they are carrying an ugly plastic bag versus a cool reusable bag. the problem is more in suburbs and car culture. they dont’ have to look at their plastic bags other than stuffing them into the trunk of their car. if there were some idea for making it uncool to have plastic bags in your car, or cool to have reesuable bags attached to your car, like a pocket for reusable bags suction cupped on to car windows in some cool design.

side note: i don’t understand why people buy chico bags for reusable bags. i would go one step further, get a bag made of cotton or hemp.

11 years ago

I feel like there needs to be some education of grocery store employees. How often have you refused a bag as the cashier was putting your merchandise into a bag, only to take the merchandise out and put the bag in the trash – so frustrating! I pack my bags (reusable), but I am sure that a lot of waste could be eliminated if people packing the bags packed smarter – less double bagging, more items in bags, etc..

11 years ago

Unfortunately a ban is the only thing that will work, sometimes I watch all the plastic bags being used at the grocery store and it saddens me that not too many people seem to care.

David McKay
11 years ago

Nice one, Beth! I love hearing about the system as a whole and getting the word out that the plastic industry lies to us is great.

Look for my next post about my plastic Christmas with my family…

11 years ago

In what ways can we (people who care about this issue) turn this around?

My family takes reusable bags everywhere or carries the item(s) out in our hands.

The plastic and paper bags that do find their way into our home get reused as much as possible before being recycled (paper) or trashed (plastic; no recycling here for those).

We are “being the change we want to see”…

Obviously, it is time for the next step. What are some “next steps”? Thanks! :)