There really are better ways to handle the plastic bag problem besides outright bans. Just ask Troy Cook, Operations Manager of Novolex’s recycling plant in North Vernon, IN. Located next door to Novolex’s plastic bag manufacturing facility, the recycling facility offers a closed-loop system—Bag-2-Bag—that meets consumer demands for “green” initiatives while maintaining the benefits of plastics that many consumers love.
Cook told PlasticsToday that Novolex’s recycling plant works with bag manufacturing plants throughout the region to reprocess plastic scrap from their production lines. “We get the scrap plastic from different streams of materials, reprocess it and return it to them to make new bags,” explained Cook. “We have both post-industrial scrap brought in from third-party buyers, and post-consumer from various vendors and customers who bring us their waste stream.”
Like many in the retail bag manufacturing industry, Cook is against bag bans. “I think [bag bans] are bad decisions made with bad information,” he said. “We push the recycling aspects of bags because customers have asked for plastic bags; it’s their preference. Polyethylene is 100% recyclable. We partner with various stores and other sources to put up recycling bins.”
Cook believes that making it easy for consumers to recycle is key. “The more we can promote recycling and give people the opportunity to recycle, the more they will do that,” he said. “If there are no recycling receptacles or barrels to put their bags into at the store level, their inclination is to put it in the trash. The easier we can make it for them, the more they will participate in recycling.”
Through the Bag-2-Bag system, Novolex’s recycling facility brings in materials either through post-industrial or post-consumer reclamation; the company also looks for opportunities to purchase materials. Currently Novolex’s bags can contain up to 60% of recycled material, and the company is looking to increase its post-consumer input into the bags.
“Our customers, retail bag manufacturers, are looking to increase post-consumer material in their end-use bags,” said Cook. “The amount of recycled content in our bags is really dependent on supply inventory and the availability of different materials,” Cook explained. “We partner with our customers to determine how much recycled content they’re looking to achieve, run various tests to ensure quality standards are met and certify the various percentages of recycled material.”
The bags show some variation in color, given that reclaimed materials might be colored or printed with various colors of inks. For example, what would be a white bag might be off-white or eggshell, depending on additives and inks used in the reclaimed materials. The darker gray bags have more of the colored materials and darker inks.
“It’s customer preference as to what colors they want, and we work with them to increase the amount of recyclable materials they have to determine the difference in clarity and color they have available,” said Cook.
The company encourages consumer participation with recycle bag bins at all retail locations to make it easy. With each trip to the store, consumers can support sustainable plastic production and participate in the Bag-2-Bag program, which the company said is the nation’s first closed-loop recycling program.
Initiatives like the Novolex Bag-2-Bag program appear to be an excellent way to capture plastic bags at the retail store level and keep these lightweight bags from flying around in the environment, where they can be seen as evidence of plastic pollution. And it’s a better alternative than putting them in the curbside recycling container, where, in many cases, these bags are not wanted.
For example, officials in Indian River County, Florida, recently launched a public outreach campaign to discourage residents from placing plastic bags and wraps in curbside recycling bins, and to expand drop-off recycling locations for these plastics.
“Please, do not put plastic bags and wraps in your curbside recycling bins,” implored Sue Flak, Recycling Education and Marketing Coordinator. “They do not get recycled at curbside. They harm recycling equipment and cost taxpayers more money. Instead, plastic bags and wraps should be taken to retail stores that offer drop-off programs, such as Publix, or one of six county locations for recycling.”
While recycling of plastic bags and wraps has been available at many leading retail stores for years, Indian River County recently added new Rack’nPak Recycle Bagging System collection bins, manufactured by PolyWrap Recycling LLC, at convenience centers to make it easier for residents to recycle properly. The Rack’nPak Recycle Bagging System bins were made available thanks to a donation provided by America’s Plastic Makers, which sponsor a nationwide recycling initiative called WRAP (Wrap Recycling Action Program).
Besides retail bags, the drop-off points collect bags for newspapers, produce, bread, dry cleaning and more, as well as plastic wraps from cases of water bottles, bathroom tissue, paper towels and similar products. They get recycled into products such as new grocery bags, park benches, shopping carts and decking.
In spite of various ongoing efforts by bag manufacturers, recyclers and the retailers themselves, some retailers continue to ban plastic bags, which many consumers prefer because of their reusability and recyclability. For example, at the end of 2018, grocery store chain Trader Joe’s announced that it would be making moves to cut out one million pounds of single-use plastics in its more than 500 stores as soon as possible. Besides getting rid of all plastic bags, the company set out a list of the things it was going to take action on in this pursuit, including reducing plastic packaging, looking into renewable and recyclable packaging, and helping to educate its customers on how to best recycle the packaging being purchased at a Trader Joe’s store.
According to Trader Joe’s announcement, the company replaced produce bags with biodegradable and compostable produce bags for the convenience of carrying loose or “by-the-each” fruits and vegetables.
What Trader Joe’s apparently does not know is that those biodegradable and compostable produce bags can put a monkey wrench into the recycling stream if consumers mistakenly put them into the recycle bin.
According to a number of recent studies, including a recent end-of-life fate of biodegradable plastic bags conducted by a team led by Jesse Harrison of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, many of these alternatives that are touted as better for the environment because they are biodegradable and/or compostable are often made from a heavier-grade plastic.
A recent commentary in Cosmos magazine, an online scientific publication, on this study noted, “Harrison and colleagues found that many studies used only laboratory tests to predict how particular plastics would behave in the open ocean. There was no agreement across the board on standards to define biodegradability, nor on consistent testing methods.”
Another problem with biodegradable plastic bags and wraps is that, according to the Harrison research, “existing biodegradability standards and test methods for aquatic environments do not involve toxicity testing or account for the potentially adverse ecological impacts of carrier bags, plastic additives, polymer degradation products or small (microscopic) plastic particles that can arise via fragmentation.”
Andrew Masterson, editor of Cosmos, noted at the end of his report that “plugging these gaps in research, and doing so as soon as possible, should be a priority . . . to avoid the nightmare scenario in which trying to remove one environmental pollutant results in the creation of a worse one.”
As I’ve often said, the law of unintended consequences is always in play, and while it’s difficult to predict all outcomes via computer modeling, just being aware of the potential negative impact may be helpful.
In spite of Novolex’s Bag-2-Bag recycling program and promotion, Cook admits that the company wins some battles and loses others. “But we try to say we have a better solution than outright bans,” he said.
“The message we want to send is that plastics are 100% recyclable, and the more we can encourage and promote and make it easier to recycle, the better,” added Cook. “With decisions being made to increase the amount of recycled content, our intent is to help increase those percentages. We’ll step up to meet those challenges as far as overall recycled content is concerned.”