Until that elusive, scalable alternative is found, brands will continue to rely on polybags made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE or #2) or low-density polyethylene (LDPE or #4). LDPE bags are most commonly used for apparel because they have good clarity, strength, and moisture prevention properties. While these types of polybags are technically recyclable, they’re not able to be recycled through most municipal curbside programs. This is because the film gets caught in the gears of recycling trucks and in the sorting equipment at materials recovery facilities (MRFs), causing frequent work stoppage and creating dangerous situations as employees have to climb into the machinery to untangle the bags. Another reason that polybags are difficult to recycle is that they must meet recyclers’ specifications to be clean, dry, and empty, which is challenging in a single-stream recycling program where items are easily contaminated.
While polybags made from #2 and #4 plastic can be recycled by customers at 18,000 drop-off points across the country, few people are aware of, or make the effort to recycle polybags at grocery stores that are part of the Wrap Recycling Action Program (WRAP). Regardless, leaving polybag recycling solely to the end user is not the answer.
More Recycling (MORE), a research and consulting company focused on tracking recycling infrastructure data to support circularity of post-consumer materials, manages the data and technology aspects of WRAP’s infrastructure. Aside from consumer drop off points, WRAP, with support from MORE, piloted polybag recycling projects at malls where a porter collects polybags on a regular basis from stores, bales them and ships direct to market. Nina Butler, the CEO of MORE, says “We have a major crisis that demands we radically change our course. Rethink, reduce, recycle right and buy recycled are key to developing inter-circularity of the plastic film market.”
Butler’s colleague at MORE, Emily Tipaldo, the director of strategy and business development, underscores that consumer drop off points are only part of the polybag collection equation. “WRAP is interested in working with brands along the entire value chain to get better audit data of where film is used each step of the way and developing case studies documenting how brands are working collaboratively to align value chains."
Butler also stresses the fragility of the current film recycling system and the key role brands play in strengthening it. “With the recent drop in price for virgin plastic, there isn’t enough value in post-consumer material to account for the handling costs. We need to stimulate market development for post-consumer recycled content in products and packaging. It may be an investment for brands, but it is critical to developing the circular economy that recycling programs like WRAP rely on. Brands have to be part of the demand solution.”
Many brands are stepping up to embrace the challenge to use PCR plastic in their products. Some examples include Costa Sunglasses and their partnership with Bureo to make sunglasses from recycled fishing nets, and the partnership between PrimaLoft, adidas and Parley for the Oceans to manufacture high-performance insulation products. Patagonia recently reported that 69 percent of their line includes recycled material, including plastic, and is well on the way to meeting their commitment to use only renewable or recyclable materials in their products by 2025.
Another partnership possibility exists in Eco-cycle, a non-profit recycler based in Boulder. This spring, Eco-Cycle will be piloting a robust polybag recycling program along the Pearl Street Mall with the help of participating stores like Patagonia. According to Kate Christian, Eco-Cycle’s corporate sustainability coordinator, stores will pool polybag collection in one location to make it easier for Eco-cycle to haul away. “Pearl Street’s collection hub and spoke model to recycle #2 and #4 polybags will show proof of concept that the industry can work together to minimize the impact of common waste streams,” says Christian. “When an industry works together, we can begin to move the needle toward more sustainable solutions.”
The Pearl Street polybags are delivered to Trex, where they’re turned into composite decking, that, according to Eco-cycle, provides “a long-lasting product that needn't be treated with toxic chemicals and lessens the burden on hardwood trees like redwoods and cedars that are more typically used for similar applications such as decks and piers.”
While composite decking lengthens the life of a polybag, ultimately it will end up in landfill one day, unless future technology provides for another life as another product. But it serves as an example of how brands need to think of closing the loop when it comes to polybags, and all other plastic packaging.