Can Plastic Film Be Recycled?

Most plastic film products can be, but the process is unique.

High Angle View Of Plastic Bags On Floor
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According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 35.7 million tons of waste was generated in the United States in 2018. However, only three million tons (8.7%) of plastic was recycled in 2018. Part of the reason this percentage is so low is that many consumers are unsure of exactly how to recycle the different types of plastics, such as plastic film.

What Is Plastic Film?

Plastic film is defined as any plastic that is less than 10-mm thick. It can be colored or clear, printed or plain, and single or multilayered. It is usually made from polyethylene resin and examples include zip-top bags, grocery bags, bubble wrap, the wrap around paper towels, and dry-cleaning film.

Plastic film can be recycled by turning it into composite lumber, which is used to make benches, decks, and playground sets. It is also recycled and reprocessed into small pellets that are used to make plastic containers, crates, pipes, new plastic bags, and pallets. However, most municipalities in the United States do not recycle plastic film from curbside bins, therefore it should not be placed in these bins. Instead, plastic film has its own unique recycling process.

How To Recycle Plastic Film

Plastic Bags

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To recycle plastic film, it must be taken to a drop-off location such as a grocery store or other retail store. There are more than 18,000 locations across the United States and Canada that collect plastic film for recycling. Before recycling, make sure that plastic film is clean (no food residue) and dry. It can then be placed in any plastic bag recycling bin in a retail store.

Plastic film cannot be recycled from curbside bins because it gets tangled up with other plastics in the equipment at material recovery facilities. This damages the recycling equipment, and the plastic film ends up going to the landfill. Therefore, it is important to bring all plastic film to retail stores to undergo a special process.

The Recycling Process

During the recycling process, plastic film is brought into the facility in baled form and is then pulled apart by hand or by a guillotine. It is then fed into a shredder and water-fed grinder where it is cut into pieces. The film is then washed and inspected for contamination. Once clean and dry, the film is placed into an extruder where heat and pressure melt the plastic. The molten plastic is then released from the extruder, formed into fine strands, cooled, and chopped into pellets. The pellets are used by manufacturers to produce new plastic film products.

Plastic Film Labels

The Society of the Plastic Industry (SPI) created a classification system that makes it easy for consumers to sort their plastics. This system involves a label on plastic products that includes a plastic identification code surrounded by a “chasing arrow symbol". Most plastic film is categorized as #2 plastic (high-density polyethylene) and #4 plastic (low-density polyethylene). Only plastic film that is labeled #2 or #4 can be recycled. Other types of plastic film should be placed in the garbage as it is important not to contaminate the recycling stream. If plastic film does not have a label, it should also be placed in the garbage.

Challenges

Recycling plastic film can be challenging as recycling programs are only successful if the recycler can accumulate large quantities of it. This is the reason why plastic film is recycled at retail stores. Large retail stores collect plastic film from consumers and add it to the film generated by their own facility. They accumulate large quantities of it in a short time, which allows them to market full truckloads of film.

Ways To Reduce Plastic Film

Bee's Wax Wrap

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The best way to manage plastic waste is to not create it in the first place. This refers to the reduction of waste at the source. An industry research group in the United States revealed that within six months of 2020, 5.3 million Americans had used 10 or more rolls/boxes of rolls of plastic wrap. Plastic film contributes to the plastic pollution crisis as it is challenging to recycle and it contains chemicals that when broken down, are harmful to the environment.

Using alternatives such as a wax paper is a great way to reduce plastic film use. Bee’s wax wraps, made from cotton, bee’s wax, jojoba oil, and tree resin, have been increasing in popularity. The wrap becomes malleable after unfolding and scrunching a few times. Food stays fresh in the bee’s wax wrap, and it is 100% compostable.

Other alternatives include using reusable containers instead of zip-top bags and reusable grocery bags/bins instead of single-use plastic bags. Plastic bags can also be re-purposed as garbage liners or pet waste bags. Consumers can also choose to only shop at stores that use biodegradable packaging instead of plastic film such as bubble wrap.