Plastic grocery sack recycling

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					                                                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

     Bag graphics

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