Plastic grocery sack recycling
One of the fastest growing segments of re- Grocery sack manufacturers have made
cycling is plastic grocery sack recycling. In the retailers’ task of joining recycling pro-
the past year, programs have been started grams easy by providing them with collection
by Arthur Amidon throughout the U.S. and Canada, and by late bins, stock sack graphics, examples of pro-
Arthur Amidon is a recycling consultant with summer 1990, over 10,000 supermarkets motional pamphlets and posters, as well as a
Moore Recycling Associates, Hancock, New were participating in plastic grocery sack re- ready market for all of the collected materials.
Hampshire. cycling programs. This represents over 30 Each recycling effort has its own unique
percent of the 30,000-plus supermarkets features that each member of the program
nationwide. This is an incredible jump from works with to create a successful program.
the handful of stores conducting programs at Most sack manufacturers began with pilot
the beginning of the year. The increasing programs that addressed some basic, but
Programs that recover plastic number of programs is an indication of the very important, questions,
level of commitment on the part of the grocery n What problems will be encountered?
grocery bags are nascent, but sack manufacturers and retail grocers. Gro- n Will shoppers return the sacks without a
hold promise. cery stores have been joining the programs at cash incentive?
the rate of approximately 1,750 per month. If n How clean will the collected sacks be?
this rate continues, all interested supermar- n How economical will the collection, trans-
kets could be on line by the summer of 1991. portation and processing be?
The fall of 1990 sees grocery sack recycling n How can the program be expanded?
programs maturing, most with overwhelming n What will the program become?
success. n Can the program become self-
Around 23 billion plastic grocery sacks are supporting?
consumed by the grocery industry per year.
The use of plastic sacks in grocery stores has Pilot programs grow
grown steadily over the last 10 years. The re- Many of the pilot programs started with out-
placement of brown paper bags with plastic door recycling bins, often regular trash bar-
sacks is a continuing trend. In 1982, plastic rels with signs explaining they were barrels
grocery sacks represented 5 percent of the for plastic grocery sack recycling, not for
grocery bag market. Plastic has now cap- trash. Unfortunately, this message was not
tured 60 percent of the market. This repre- always heeded, and the result was confusion
sents somewhere around 383 million pounds for the customer and contamination in the
of high density polyethylene (HDPE) and low form of cans, bottles and general trash. This
density polyethylene (LDPE) available for collection method has been dropped in favor
recycling annually. of in-store collection sites.
Four manufacturers provide most grocery The rack used for in-store collection in
sacks to North America: Sonoco Products Mobil’s program evolved as kinks were
Company, Inc. of Hartsville, South Carolina; worked out. In the beginning, Mobil’s program
Mobil Chemical Company of Pittsford, New employed an all-weather trash can clearly
York; Vanguard Plastics, Inc. of St. Louis, Mis- labeled on the top and sides “for plastic gro-
souri; and the PCL Group, represented by cery bags only.” However, contamination was
PCL Packaging Ltd. headquartered in Oak- high. The receptacle was brought inside the
ville, Ontario and PCL & Eastern Packaging store, but customers still used it as a trash
Ltd. of Saint John, New Brunswick. Each can.
company has made a firm commitment to The next step was to replace the trash can
remove plastic grocery sacks from the with a metal rack draped with a clear
waste stream and make them into new useful polyethylene bag with the word “RECYCLE”
products. The methods used by these manu- printed across the front. A waterproof lid was
facturers (as well as the other smaller sack employed. This lid was later replaced with a
producers) are varied. plastic top that was not weatherproof but
Resource Recycling November 1990
allowed a clear view of the contents. Attached Cardboard boxes with polyethylene liners are
signs indicate the container is for plastic gro- available to grocery retailers participating in
cery sack recycling only This combination Sonoco Products’ plastic bag recycling pro-
seems to be working very well at this stage of gram.
the recycling project.
Mobil’s pilot program started with Weg-
mans Food Markets of Rochester, New York.
The joint program began with the Ridge- with one drop-off box each. Vanguard offers
Culver store on February 1, 1990 and soon the stores fiber collection drums and plywood
expanded to seven stores. Mobil, like other boxes large enough to house a Gaylord con-
manufacturers, supplies recycling racks (or tainer. Stephen Van Asdale, company
bins) to the stores at cost. The stores are re- spokesman, characterizes the store patrons’
sponsible for collecting and shipping the response as being “overwhelming.” He
sacks to a centralized location, usually the noted, “the first week the boxes averaged
store’s warehouse, where they are baled. nine pounds of sacks, in week nine the weight
When a sufficient amount has been baled, was up to 60 pounds per week, and by the
the warehouse calls Mobil, which will pick up, twentieth week each box was receiving
or have a common carrier pick up, the baled 100 pounds per week of HDPE sacks to be
sacks within 48 hours. recycled.”
As of mid-June, the Mobil/Wegmans pro- Sonoco offers grocery retailers three differ-
gram collected 19,000 pounds of plastic gro- ent collection bins: a cardboard box, a recy-
cery sacks. By mid-July, the total was up to cled fiber drum, and a plastic container with a
32,000 pounds. The number of participating clear front. All have removable polyethylene
Wegmans stores had grown to 42, and the liners and stand around three-feet tall. Bob
total stores in Mobil’s nationwide program had Householder, marketing manager for environ-
passed the 2,000 mark. mental issues in Sonoco’s High Density Film
Vanguard’s first pilot program began in St. Products Division, explains that their plastic
Louis in October 1989 and consisted of two bag recycling program began in March 1990,
Dierburgs stores and two Schnucks stores and by late August, the Sonoco-sponsored
Resource Recycling November 1990
programs were operating or pending at 6,732 Cooperation is key recycling programs and use the collected
stores. By initiating plastic grocery sack recycling sacks to make more sacks will be “closing the
Richard Thompson, formerly of PCL Pack- programs, plastic sack manufacturers are loop” and will have a competitive advantage
aging in Oakville, Ontario, characterized helping to reduce the amount of waste being over those manufacturers that don't make the
PCL's pilot program at the A&P and Food City landfilled or incinerated by a municipality, thus effort to integrate post-consumer collections
stores in Toronto as collecting approximately reducing the costs to all taxpayers. The man- into their products.
3 percent of the sales volume of plastic gro- ufacturers also have a vested interest in help- The entire plastic grocery sack recycling
cery sacks during the first month of operation ing set up a recycling infrastructure. Recy- program is a good example of the importance
in the average supermarket. Each month that cling plastic sacks saves natural resources, of cooperation among the various groups
figure doubled to 6 percent, then 12 percent, assures resin reclamation and meets public involved. Without the zeal of some shoppers,
and leveled off at 24 percent in the fourth policy demand for recyclable products. The many of today’s programs would not have
month. Paul Rahn, plant manager of the Oak- manufacturer who is able to set up successful begun. On the other hand, this same en-
ville facility says, “There are three basic condi-
tions that are needed in order to get high
levels of collections: bin design, bin location
and specific signage. In many of our par-
ticipating stores, we are collecting 15 to 20
percent and with effort, we expect to increase
these figures.” PCL had nearly 1,000 super-
markets on line by early fall.
According to Thomas Millar, president of
PCL & Eastern Packaging of Saint John,
New Brunswick, by late summer 1990, 347
stores were participating in PCL's LDPE
recycling program, which began in July 1989.
After a full year of operation, the percentage
of store participation has reached 80 percent
in Atlantic Canada and 90 percent in Northern
New England. Both areas collect 15 to 20 per-
cent of the sack weight purchased. These
percentages may be an indication of the kind
of store and shopper participation we may
see as some of the larger and more recently
implemented programs mature. Because the
stores serve a rural population and there are
few HDPE sacks used in the area, store
boxes average 91 percent clean LDPE. In
more heavily populated areas, the market mix
of LDPE to HDPE sometimes approaches
50/50. By July 1990, PCL & Eastern had one
full year of operations and received 1.1 million
pounds from store collections.
In addition to its supermarket recycling pro-
grams, PCL & Eastern Packaging works with
three municipal curbside programs collecting
LDPE film in Nova Scotia and New
Brunswick. The curbside programs are
generating approximately six pounds per
household per year, providing PCL with 98
percent clean material. Millar calls the
curbside programs “the most efficient collec-
tion system” and adds, “we want curbside col-
lection to replace our grocery store bins.”
The cost of the collection bins (wire racks,
fiber drums, plywood boxes, etc.) varies from
program to program and is passed on to the
store chains. The costs related to collecting
the sacks and monitoring the collection pro-
gram are all borne by the grocery stores as
part of their commitment to the bag manufac-
turer, their customers and the environment.
This also pays the additional dividend of
enhancing the image of each store in the
Resource Recycling November 1990
thusiasm has caused some shoppers to bring cent to 30 percent of the total sacks sold on a than the entrances, absence of collection
in every piece of film available, some of which store-to-store basis. Knowledgeable industry bags at the designated spots, piles of
is incompatible with a particular recycling pro- representatives predict that mature programs returned bags next to overflowing bins, and
gram. The way around these problems is to will be able to collect from 12 percent to more a general perception that this is not real
educate the shoppers about exactly what is than 30 percent of the sacks. recycling. Underlying causes include lack of
needed for successful recycling. The more commitment from the manufacturer, retail
knowledgeable the consumer is, the easier it management and employees. A distressing
will be for the recovered plastic to find a valu- note is the claim by one minor regional man-
able spot in tomorrows world. Many of the ufacturer on bags marked “Made from Recy-
programs teach the shopper to turn the sacks cled Plastics.” In actuality, the bags contain
inside out before dropping them off. This
Collected plastic sacks are less than one-tenth of 1 percent post-
removes any pieces of stray lettuce or paper processed into new grocery consumer film. It will take dedication and
receipts. Other programs have the store enthusiasm to turn this kind of slow start into
check-out person hand the paper receipt to bags, trash bags, bottles, or a positive and rewarding program.
the shopper, not putting it in the sack at all. pallet protection devices.
Paper is the largest contaminant in many of Retailers have a stake, too
the programs. Other forms of contamination Ted Brown, environmental coordinator for
are usually the result of improper disposal of Hannaford Bros., a grocery store chain in Port-
cans and bottles. land, Maine, sums up its plastic bag program
Grocery sack manufacturers are reluctant Some regional manufacturers have not yet this way, ‘You can’t pass the buck. We have
to give specific numbers of sacks sold, per- been able to create the atmosphere for a suc- recycling programs in our stores because it is
centages recycled, pounds used and pounds cessful program. As a result, the amount of the right thing to do. Many of the communities
of post-consumer film collected. This and the sacks collected by one manufacturer is only 1 where we have stores have no other way to
immaturity of the programs tends to cloud the percent of those sold. Additionally, only 5 to recycle the plastic bags. We will take all the
calculation of recovery rates for plastic gro- 10 percent of the material collected is usable bags that come through the door because as
cery sack recycling. Participation rates vary because of the high level of contamination. a responsible member of the community this
from program to program, and are due to pol- Some of the reasons for this apparently in- is the right thing for us to do. It may not be the
icy, promotion, education and the success of effective program are poor placement of right thing to do tomorrow`, but today none of
pilot studies. Recovery rates vary from 1 per- some recycling bins at the store exits rather us has another choice.” Brown feels within
Resource Recycling November 1990
the next few-years there will be a dramatic mation about state and local recycling pro- ments, and store window display posters are
shift to curbside collection. grams and other “green consumer” pro- some of the methods used to get the
The retailers have many reasons to encour- grams. recycling message across to shoppers.
age the recycling of plastic sacks. Plastic Another way retailers keep the recycling pro-
grocery sacks are less expensive to pur- grams on shoppers’ minds is by providing
chase, transport and store than paper sacks. lapel buttons for all store personnel. Some
Plastic sack recycling promotes the store’s plastic grocery sacks are printed front and
commitment to recycling and environmental back with instructions on how to participate in
responsibility, Many retailers print messages Grocery sack manufac- the recycling program.
on the sacks providing tips on such diverse The collected sacks from the stores are
subjects as home composting of lawn and turers have provided usually transported by the supermarkets,
food wastes, source reduction of the waste retailers with collection either as a back haul in a delivery truck or a
stream through consumer purchasing aware- direct haul to the distribution center in a trailer
ness, and the ability to recycle various scrap bins, graphics for sacks, used specifically for storing recyclables such
materials. promotional materials, as sacks, cardboard boxes, pallets, etc.
Many participating grocery store chains, Some stores use bulk apple bins (15 to 20
such as Hannaford Bros. Co., have de- and most importantly, a bushels) and cardboard watermelon boxes
veloped environmental and recycling depart- market for the collected as backroom storage containers for the plas-
ments within their organizations. This has tic sacks and other recyclables such as
made the addition of plastic grocery sack sacks. stretch wrap.
recycling an easier task. Hannaford stores The collected sacks are baled at the
provide more than just collection bins: they warehouse. Bales can range from 800
also have large informational tables around pounds to 1,400 pounds depending on the
the bins. These contain information about the type of baler and the baling techniques used.
plastic sack recycling program as well as Depending on the volume available for recy-
other company-wide commitments to the Comprehensive promotion and educa- cling, Sonoco will lease balers to the chain
environment, such as recovering cardboard tional materials have played a major part in warehouses or place trailers to provide distri-
boxes, stretch wrap and office paper. These successful sack recycling programs. Circu- bution centers with a storage area specifically
information areas often provide general infor- lars, newspaper and television advertise- for collected grocery sacks.
Resource Recycling November 1990
n Table 1 - Plastic grocery sack recycling programs, August 1990
Sonoco Products Mobil Chemical Vanauard Plastics PCL Packaging PCL & Eastern
Stores on line 6,732 2,321 2,000-2,500 900-1,000 347
Percent bags returned 6-12 20 20-25 15-20 15-20
Final product made Bottles; Edgeboard Trash bags Grocery bags Grocery bags Grocery bags
Processing upgrades quality then separates the target resin from other Value-added recycling
In some programs, bag manufacturers trans- resins and other contaminants. Some of the Most manufacturers are technically capable
port the collected sacks from the store’s contaminants encountered are cotton cords of adding up to 50 percent post-consumer
warehouse to the manufacturing plant. used as drawstrings, starch-modified “bio- and post-industrial content to plastic grocery
Others provide transportation allowances to degradable” bags, paper from register re- sacks. Today, the amount of post-consumer
retailers that deliver the collected sacks. ceipts, cans, bottles and trash. In general, scrap used is limited by cleanliness and avail-
There are also sack manufacturers that pur- as programs mature, material quality ability. Post-industrial scrap has long been
chase clean, source-separated film from improves. The need for resin separation used by the industry as part of the total con-
municipal curbside collection programs as depends on the end use. In some programs, tent. Some manufacturers have printed on
well as from recycling processors with access the HDPE/LDPE mix dictates the end use plastic grocery sacks messages such as
to large amounts of clean film. because it would be too costly to separate “This Bag is made of Recycled Plastics” or
To process the collected sacks, the bales materials by resin. “This bag contains up to 50 percent of your
must first be broken open. Manual sorting After manual sorting, the bags are shred- recycled plastic shopping bags and can be
ded, heated and either densified or extruded recycled repeatedly.” Others have opted to
into pellets, to be used in a variety of prod- not mention recycled content. However, most
ucts. If necessary, some programs wash the do say the sacks are recyclable and include
collected bags. the coding symbol that identifies the type of
plastic used in the sacks.
End products Rick Kralstein, company manager of AAA
Because PCL & Eastern has very little HDPE Polymer, Inc., a Brooklyn, New York exporter
in its collections, it’s able to process the resul- of both post-industrial and post-consumer
tant high grade pellets back into plastic gro- polyethylene film scrap, said the company
cery sacks. PCL Packaging also processes purchases baled film and sees grocery sack
its collected sacks into new grocery bags. collections as providing very high quality
Mobil’s collections are a mixture of HDPE material. In speaking about grocery sack re-
and LDPE. Kevin Hart, market development cycling, Kralstein says that the supermarkets
manager of grocery sacks, says the mix of could increase the value of the sacks if they
HDPE and LDPE is not a problem. The recy- collected resins separately. The stores could
cled pellets are now used as part of the provide bins clearly marked “2” and “4,” for
feedstock for a line of industrial waste sacks HDPE and LDPE respectively, and one more
where the resin mix is not as crucial as it for “other” film that does not have coding
would be for plastic grocery sack. applica- symbols.
tions. Mobil hopes to be using the collected Another view is to have just one bin where
plastic grocery sacks as a component of a commingled film is deposited. This method
new grocery sack by the end of 1990. could provide raw material for sorting plants
Sonoco’s sacks are HDPE, but their collec- with new separation technology. Kevin Hart
tions contain over 40 percent LDPE. Sonoco says Mobil is interested in developing relation-
is currently using its collections to manufac- ships with processors across the continent to
ture products like plastic oil bottles and increase its ability to handle the increase
Edgeboard, a protective cornerboard product in available post-consumer film. Regional
used when stretch-wrapping some pallets. In separation plants may be able to provide a
the future, they too hope to be recycling sack service that could benefit manufacturers,
resins back into sacks. retailers and municipalities. These regional
Vanguard’s HDPE recycling process allows processors may have additional markets for
up to 10 percent LDPE. These mixed resin this kind of post-consumer material.
pellets are then used with post-industrial re- Some industry people believe it is impossi-
claimed resin and made back into plastic ble to operate a plastics separation plant at a
grocery sacks. profit in North America and have instead
Resource Recycling November 1990
opted for exporting the baled film for sub- Steve Van Asdale of Vanguard feels that at From the lessons learned through plastic
sequent processing overseas. The repel- some point the manufacturers are going to grocery sack recycling, new programs can be
letized film is then brought back to the U.S. have to begin paying for the collected sacks. initiated. The greatest lesson of recycling is
and used as feedstock for various institutional "The stores are initiating all of these recycling innovation itself. RR
bags. Still another attempt at using post-con- programs as a customer and a community
sumer film is as feedstock for plastic lumber. service,” says Van Asdale,” and at some point
New technologies will play a large part in
recovering post-consumer plastic. The resin
when the volume of collections increase suffi-
ciently, I am convinced that a secondary mar- Kraft paper grocery
separation of collected plastic grocery sacks
is now done by hand. Very shortly, however,
ket will develop for the post-consumer sacks.
So if we as manufacturers don’t pay for the
sacks are recycled, too
most of the manufacturers will have sacks, someone else will." As it is, most com- Walden’s Fiber & Board Report reports
mechanized sorting and will be able to handle panies already pay to transport the baled that Fletcher Challenge Canada, the huge
the expected influx from additonal collection sacks to their processing plants. Currently, paper manufacturing company, and the
programs. there are very few companies paying for the Overwaitea grocery chain, one of British
The value of mixed resins on the open mar- collected material. However, as collections Columbia’s largest, are collecting kraft
ket is very low; however, separated HDPE increase, the steady availability of clean grocery bags for recycling.
and LDPE do have an inherently greater source-separated film should be more Overwaitea customers bring their used
value. The worth of the clean separated valuable. bags to stores; the bags are collected at a
feedstock is tied to the virgin resin it replaces. In the meantime, the retail stores and the warehouse, baled at FCC’s Crown Pack-
The greater the difference in price between sack manufacturers are underwriting the aging plant in Richmond, British Colum-
virgin and post-consumer resins, the greater plastic grocery sack recycling programs. As bia, and then barged to Elk Falls Pulp and
the competitive edge a manufacturer will Mobil’s Hart puts it, ‘There are no free Paper, also in British Columbia. Newsprint
enjoy. More demand for the post-consumer lunches, there are costs associated with any and kraft paper shipments are already
feedstock means processing capacity can recycling program. Solid waste is a national being barged from Elk Falls to Richmond.
develop more easily By initiating plastic gro- problem, not just a grocery problem.” Reportedly, the volumes involved will be
cery sack recycling, the sack manufacturers Plastic grocery sacks, although visible, rep- small, only several hundred tons a year.
have positioned themselves to learn as much resent a very small part of the waste stream. Overwaitea stores are also collecting
as possible, as quickly as possible, and be Plastic grocery sack recycling can, however, scrap glass, metal and plastic for
more competitive in an increasingly frenzied teach us that through cooperation and inno- recycling.
marketplace. vation we can recapture almost anything.
Resource Recycling November 1990