New EPA Stats Appear Dismal

Posted by — December 27, 2011 8:32 am

Courtesy of

The latest results from the Environmental Protection Agency regarding the recycling rates for plastic bags, sacks and wrap have been released and they are pretty discouraging.

Up until 2005, the EPA listed recycling rates for plastic bags separate from other forms of polyethylene plastics (more about that in a minute).  However, post  2005, the EPA  began to lump the recycling rate of plastic bags into “Bags, sacks and wraps” – HDPE, LDPE and LLDPE plastics.   This new way of calculating recycling rates made the tracking of recycing rates for plastic bags more difficult, but not impossible.
A quick tutorial on what all these initials mean:  HDPE is High Density Polyethylene, which is used to make most of the single-use plastic grocery bags you see in your local grocery stores.  LLDPE  is Linear Low-Density Polyethylene – think about those glossy, shopping mall bags as an example of LLDPE plastic.  Further, the stretch wrap that you see wrapped around shipping pallets and the wrap around your paper towel and toilet paper are examples of LDPE/LLDPE plastic.  LDPE and LLDPE bags and wrap have a fairly well-established recycling infrastructure and if you drive behind your local shopping mall, you will probably see a container of that type of wrap, ready to be picked up for recycling.  Retailers and wholesalers use tons of this “stretch wrap” as goods are shipped around the country.  It is clean, plentiful, and can be recycled easily, making it a valuable commodity.
1 – Bags, sacks and wraps: HDPE : 4.3% recovery rate; LDPE/LLDPE: 17.6%; Subtotal Bags, Sacks and wraps: 11.5%
What were the recycling rates for 2009, according to the EPA?
2 – Bags, sacks and wraps: HDPE: 6.1% recovery rate; LDPE/LLDPE: 13.4%. Subtotal Bags, Sacks and wraps: 9.4%
To put it in a nutshell:  the recycling rate for plastic bags (HDPE) has gone down almost 2 percentage points, a 30% reduction from 2009.  This is data that deeply conflicts with the information that the shrink wrap (LDPE/LLDPE) rates increased by 4%.   It would indicate (to me, at least) that while the infrastructure and incentive for recycling shrink wrap is thriving, shoppers (you and me) have become even less vigilant about recycling their single-use disposable plastic bags than they were in 2009.
Opponents of bans on single-use plastic bags claim that given education and a proper place to dispose of their bags (i.e., the recycling box in front of some grocery stores),  consumers will do the right thing.  They claim their educational efforts are paying off and that more and more consumers are recycling their bags.  This latest data seems to bely those claims.
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  • Beth Terry

    Thanks for analyzing the explaining the EPA’s data.  Hilex should be ashamed for twisting the data mislead the public.  Too bad they don’t allow comments on their blog posts.

  • Stivjwilson

    Big props to Barbara for this, as I’m using some of this data in my Greenbiz rebuttal that’s about to drop.

    cheers Barbara. Stiv

  • Nancy

    I’d like to see what the total usage is for this year compared to last year.  Percentage’s may have gone up but if total usage has gone down then that may be why the percentage has gone up when in reality it has stayed the same or even been less.  Unfortunately there will probably always be a portion of the population that will not recycle.   Maybe I’m reading the data wrong but I dont see anything regarding total usage.

    • Barbara

      Hello Nancy,

      Thank you for your comment.  Production numbers for carrier (or shopping) bags)  can be found in the U.S. International Trade Commission, Polyethylene Retail Carrier Bags from Indonesia, Taiwan and Vietnam page IV-7.  This report also contains the numbers for the USA production statistics, as well.

      Current usage numbers are controlled by the plastics industry and thus far, they will not publish these numbers. 

      Thanks again, Nancy,

      Barbara Mason

    • Beth Terry

      Those EPA reports do show total waste generated, though, which shows that the actual number of plastic bags collected for disposal went up last year, from 660 thousand tons in 2009 (with 40 thousand tons recycled) to 690 thousand tons in 2010 (with 30 thousand tons recycled), and that doesn’t include the stuff that got loose in the environment.  The point is that fewer bags were recycled while more bags were landfilled or incinerated.

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