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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Commercial Plastic Film Recycling: a zero waste frontier!

Plastic film recycling is a zero waste frontier filled with potential and probabilities. 

With increasing volumes of plastic film used in consumer and commercial packaging, the quantity of film landfill bound is astonishing. Industry pioneers are called upon to forge the plastic film frontier and craft new systems grounded in economics. Reduced landfill tipping costs coupled with recycling rebates are at the foundation of necessary infrastructure development.

In general plastic is recyclable as long as the stream is clean with sufficient quantity. Plastic film is highly recyclable yet the definition of a "clean stream" is confusing due to the many grades used in a wide variety of transport packaging.

Although plastic shopping bags are the most visible film product, plastic film is prominent in a myriad of consumer and commercial transport packaging. In addition to bags, common consumer film uses include bubble wrap | plastic air pillows, sleeves for newspapers, magazines & dry cleaning, and other product protection. 

Escalating internet sales over the past years is a strong contributor to astonishing increases in the volume of landfill-destined plastic film, especially in the commercial sector. In addition, strong internet sales impact how products are shipped for traditional retail sales. 

Food Lion recycling bins
provided by Ei Partner Glasdon
For the consumer, many grocery stores - Kroger, Publix and Food Lion are examples - offer plastic bag recycling via outdoor bins for their customers. Most plastic film transport packaging is accepted along with the grocery bags. UPS Stores often accept the plastic air pillows & bubble wrap for reuse in their shipping services.

With many municipalities shifting from dual or separated streams to single-stream recycling, plastic film is classified as a "contaminant" by the recycling haulers. At a MRF (materials recovery facility) single-stream recycling is sorted by material type over a series of conveyor belts and through optical sorting machinery. Plastic film wraps around sorting equipment, resulting in expensive system shutdowns; thus, valuable plastic film is considered a contaminant.

In the commercial sector plastic film is used extensively in transport packaging, ranging from shrink wrap to secure products on pallets to plastic sleeves | bags for product protection to bubble wrap | air pillows for product cushioning.

Scott Lutocka sitting on std size
plastic film bale @ Piazza Produce
Plastic film is a valuable commodity with recycling rebates often matching or exceeding OCC (old corrugated cardboard). Large commercial generators source-separate plastic film and sell the standard sized bales weighing 700 - 1000 pounds in the commodities market. Thus, plastic film is a strong contributor to their recycling profit centers.

In 2011 Elemental Impact (Ei) embarked on a commercial plastic film recycling journey targeted at moderate generators where standard size bale assembly was not practical. Development of a city-wide plastic film recycling template was the intended destination. 

In simplistic terms, the city-wide template pilot plan was to recruit 10 - 12 industry pioneers who generate a moderate amount of plastic film in their operations. Using a small baler, the pioneers collect and bale plastic film on-site for periodic collection. A local hauler collects and delivers the small bales to a warehouse. The small bales are re-baled into standard size larger bales and stored in an empty tractor trailer. Once full, the plastic film is sold by the tractor trailer load as a raw material to a manufacturer.

completed milk jug bale
A precursor to the plastic film recycling template was a successful milk jug recycling program at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the busiest airport in the world. Thanks to Ei Pioneer HMSHost's perseverance, the Starbucks milk jug recycling program established mini baler best practices. The ZWA Blog post, Milk Jugs Recycled at Atlanta Airport, announces the program launch. Note the Atlanta Airport is the Sustainable Food Court Initiative (SFCI) Airport Pilot.

Around 2011 the garment manufacturing industry shifted from bulk retail packaging to individual item packaging. RESULT: a tremendous increase in valuable, clean, virgin plastic film going into retailer waste streams. With synchronicity, Simon Property Group - the nation's largest mall and commercial real estate owner - joined the Ei Partner Program in 2011 to develop zero waste practices at their malls; Simon's focus was on plastic film and food waste.

The ZWA Blog post, Simon Property Group Embarks on Zero Waste Initiatives, chronicles the first Simon plastic film recycling meeting during Matt Hupp's - then Simon director of waste & recycling - second Atlanta visit.

Ei Ptr Louis Herrera educating
Matt Hupp on plastic film @ CM
A Charlotte Simon Mall, Concord Mills (CM) - the SFCI Shopping Center Pilot - was selected as the first mall plastic film recycling pilot. In addition to excellent mall logistics, CM General Manager Ray Soporowski was an industry veteran committed to sustainability and "doing the right thing." The stage was set!

In August 2012 CM launched their successful plastic film recycling program using a mini baler. The film rebates, coupled with reduced landfill tipping fees, covered the baler and labor cost and improved the bottom line. The ZWA Blog post, ACTION: Theme for SFCI Shopping Mall Pilot, announces the mall plastic film recycling program.

With an arsenal of lessons learned, the Ei Team was ready to focus on a city-wide plastic film recycling template designed for duplication in metro areas across the nation. 

FreshPoint (FP), the nation's largest produce distributor, stepped forward as the lead Pilot Pioneer. As an early Zero Waste Zones Participant, FreshPoint has strong sustainability practices in-place and was eager to forge new recycling frontiers.

FP employee wrapping pallet with
shrink wrap for customer delivery
During distribution center tours, the Ei Team discovered FP generated colored and clear film in their daily operations. A surprise find was the "cut room" where the disposable blue aprons were made from a recyclable plastic film grade. Once the baler was delivered, simple logistics were established to separate clear and colored plastic film. In addition, the collection bins placement was easy for the truck drivers, who brought back shrink wrap from their delivery routes.

In alignment with the CM shopping mall template, FP associates produced small plastic film bales that were collected by a hauler for consolidation into standard size bales.

The Ei Plastic Film Recovery Pilot @ FreshPoint video gives an overview of the pilot along with new practices created for contaminant-free film collection.

Fellow Ei Pioneer Tim Trefzer, Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC) Sustainability Director, visited FP to witness the plastic film recycling program in action. When the Georgia Dome - the SFCI Event Venue Pilot and within the GWCC umbrella - joined the Pioneer Team, the pilot template expanded beyond plastic film to encompass common recyclable materials: aluminum, mixed paper and PET. The goal was to create an on-site mini MRF at the GA Dome | GWCC.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium GM
Scott Jenkins w/ Tim @ GWCC MRF
Thus, the plastic film recycling template expanded to the Source-Separated Materials Recycling Template (S-SMRT). The linked website page details the game plan and lists blog articles that chronicle the work-in-progress. The Ei FB album, Source-Separated Materials Recycling: building a city-wide network, chronicles the template creation process.

Due to unforeseen circumstances ranging from promotions to long-term illness to business model shifts to internal corporate politics, the S-SMRT was put on hold in early 2015. The foundation is built and ready for a new life at the perfect time!

The Ei Plastic Film Recycling website page gives an overview of the important work along with links to blog articles detailing the action steps taken, challenges faced, lessons learned and successes. The Ei FB album, Ei Plastic Film Recycling, chronicles the impressive plastic film recycling work in a pictorial format.

In early 2016 Ei Pioneer Matt Hupp, Keter Environmental Services COO & former Simon Director of Waste & Recycling, committed to working with the Ei Team on plastic film recycling pilots at their Atlanta managed malls. Discussions are underway to craft the pilot team and return to action mode.

The plastic film recycling template tagline - If it was easy, it would already be done - is perfect for returning to action mode within the zero waste frontier.


  1. Plastic recycling is an old recycling method, instead of throwing plastics; it is quite better to go for recycling and give them a perfect shape and size. We well-known with the fact that plastics are non-biodegradable products; so definitely it needs recycling.
    Recycling Project

    1. Thanks Matt! Agree on the importance of recycling plastics. Thanks for taking the time to read the article and comment.