True confessions: Plastics engineer humbled by recycling dilemma

It has been a little over a month since I started monitoring my use of polyethylene (PE) film. I’ve been reasonably diligent in my efforts and have written about the process in this series for Plastics Today. (If you’re a newcomer to this saga, you can start by reading part one here.)

I have come to the realization that I don’t know diddly squat about plastic film recycling.

It is a humbling experience. After all, I am a plastics engineer. I know plastics. I am used to answering questions about plastic materials with a certain amount of confidence. I am a consultant. This is my area of expertise.

Eric Larson recycling project
A work in progress: Eric Larson has sorted his recyclables into three categories. Now what? Image courtesy Eric Larson.

I thought recycling PE film was going to be easy. I also thought I knew what PE film looked like. Readers have helped me realize that I don’t know as much as I thought I did. They have also provided links to various resources, some of which are listed below.

As a result, I did a re-set on my film recycling efforts, starting with my collection of yet-to-be-dropped-off-for-recycling PE film. I grabbed my collection, removed the football-sized bag from the trunk of my car, and dumped everything on the floor of my garage. I then sorted everything into three categories.

Main category: PE bags, wraps and film

In this category I put everything I had that fit into the defined “acceptable PE film examples” given by the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) and the Flexible Film Recycling Group (FFRG) of the American Chemistry Council. This included grocery, produce, newspaper, bread, Ziploc, and dry cleaning bags; product overwrap; plastic shipping envelopes; bubble wrap and air pillows; and so forth. I stuffed all of this into a grocery bag. All total, there were 283 grams of PE film. I will be taking this to my local Von’s grocery store, which has a collection site for plastic bags.

Second category: Food packaging

In this category I put everything that had been used for long-term food storage, either at room temp or in the fridge or freezer. I have learned that this kind of packaging is most likely multi-layer, and made of different materials. It is not accepted at your grocery store collection center. What to do with it? That is another question. Right now, it is in a polypropylene bin with a foldable top.

Third category: Odd plastic film

In this category I put the remainder of the film I had. This included individual candy bar wrappers (from Halloween); film that seals the top of a frozen dinner; film that covers the cork on a cheap bottle of wine; the little plastic strip that seals the top of a cardboard ice cream container. I have no idea what materials these films are made of, nor do I know what to do with them. Right now, they are in another plastic bin.

In my first article in this series, I was encouraged by a reader to look beyond the rhetoric and follow the bag. I have been doing that diligently. I am still looking, trying to follow the bag.

I don't pretend to have the answers. If anything, I have more questions than before.

“We teach best what we most need to learn”

— Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

The next part in this series will be published on Dec. 11.

Resources

Plasticfilmrecycling.org: An informational website supported by the Flexible Film Recycling Group (FFRG) of the American Chemistry Council.

Plasticsrecycling.org: Website sponsored by the Association of Plastic Recyclers  (APR), “The Voice of Plastics Recycling.”

 

Eric LarsonEric R. Larson is a mechanical engineer with over 30 years' experience in designing products made from plastics. He is the owner of Art of Mass Production, an engineering consulting company based in San Diego, CA. Products he has worked on have been used by millions of people around the world.

Larson is also moderator of the blog site plasticsguy.com, where he writes about the effective use of plastics. His most recent book is Poly and the Poopy Heads, a children’s book about plastics and the environment. It is available on Amazon.

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