Our Commitment to Sustainability
For us, sustainability is not just a buzzword. It’s the most important part of our jobs. The American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance was founded by a group of bag manufacturers who believe in recycling and the use of recycled content as a core component of their businesses. Seeing the opportunity to recycle used plastic shopping bags into new bags, ARPBA members invested in and promoted the collection and recycling of plastic bags and film at stores. Today, our member companies are not only in the plastic bag manufacturing business, but also in the recycling business, recycling hundreds of millions of pounds of plastic bags and film each year.
The ARPBA places sustainability at the forefront of everything we do. Without sustainable products, we don’t have a sustainable business. As an industry, we are committed to making environmentally sound products while supporting efforts that are proven to keep our communities and waterways clean. We are also committed to collaborating with external stakeholders (including lawmakers, environmental organizations, and businesses) to achieve our goals:
Sustainable Bag Use
It’s important to use any product sustainably. That’s why we say, “Don’t need a bag? Don’t take one.” We regularly work with our retail partners to reduce the number of bags leaving the store by addressing double bagging and other unnecessary bag use. As an alternative to per-bag fees or a ban on plastic bags, we have offered a fee per transaction model. Policies that ban plastic bags or charge a fee for each bag dramatically increase the cost to consumers and business without reducing overall litter or waste. A transaction fee would be much less regressive and serve as discouragement for using one bag for one item in a convenience shopping scenario.
Encouragement of Reuse
While plastic retail bags are often described as “single use,” we are proud that the vast majority of consumers reuse plastic bags for a variety of other purposes. In fact, the recycling authority of Quebec found that plastic bags are reused 77.7% of the time, most often as small trash can liners. This offsets the purchase of trash bags that have a higher carbon footprint. And according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 12-13% of plastic bags are recycled. Combined, that puts the number of plastic bags either reused or recycled at nearly 90%. Getting the rest of the way won’t be easy, but we are committed to going higher. We aim to ensure that plastic retail bags are reused or recycled 95% of the time by 2025.
Promotion of Recycling and Use of Recycled Content
While plastic bags and film typically aren’t widely accepted in curbside and municipal recycling programs yet, they are 100% recyclable when dropped off at participating retail or grocery stores. It’s important to communicate with consumers and make sure they know the right place to recycle plastic bags and film. That is why we are committed to working with our retail partners to not only promote existing plastic bag and film recycling locations but also expand presence to additional stores. We will continue to work with retailers on recycling signage both in the store and on the bag itself to communicate the correct place to take plastic bags for recycling.
A challenge with recycling is the confusion over labels and the lack of direction on how best to recycle. In the past, plastics have been labeled with a Resin Identification Code (RIC), which consumers use to indicate recyclability. The RIC is also known as the “chasing arrows” symbol—the three arrows forming a triangle with a number in the middle. However, while plastic bags are 100% recyclable, they typically cannot be recycled alongside plastic bottles, containers, and similar items. We commit to working with all retailers to standardize and clarify recycling language on plastic retail bags so consumers know the right place to recycle these items: grocery and retail stores with drop-off bins for plastic bags, wraps, and films.
Increasing recycled content in products is a key priority for the plastics industry. This not only contributes to a circular economy but also boosts the recycling market, providing an extra incentive for companies to collect and recycle material. We commit to achieving the following minimum recycled content in plastic retail bags:
- 2021—All bags will have 10% recycled content
- 2023—All bags will have 15% recycled content
- 2025—All bags will have 20% recycled content
Education of Sustainability at All Ages
Educating students and future leaders is one of the best methods to increase awareness of recycling and reuse. We sponsor recycling competitions in school districts, where schools compete to collect plastic bags and film with the winner receiving a bench made from recycled plastic bags. The students not only enjoy learning about recycling and participating in the competition, but they also enjoy the opportunity to collect the plastic bags and film and keep them out of the environment. And inevitably, students take these lessons home with them and educate their families about the proper place to recycle plastic bags.
In addition to continuing to sponsor school recycling programs, we commit to increasing investment in our education programs by creating educational materials for schools. Many teachers have lessons on the environment and recycling, and educators regularly reach out to us for materials to include in these lesson plans. It is imperative that we ensure that our message of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” is reiterated to students around the country.
We also commit to working with states and localities on community education programs. Proper recycling of all types of materials is important, but it’s especially important to make sure that plastic bags and film are recycled at grocery and retail stores. These materials are typically not compatible with the equipment at materials recovery facilities (MRFs), which is where mixed recycling goes to be sorted. Many communities have seen success with education programs that reiterate keeping plastic bags out of curbside or mixed recycling and instead taking these items back to grocery or retail stores.
Participation in Programs to Find New End Markets for Film and Bags
Any product is only viably recycled if there is a market for the recycled material. While many plastic bags are recycled into new bags, there need to be additional end markets so that we can achieve our commitment of increasing the number of bags collected for recycling. That’s why we’re committing to not only increasing recycled content in plastic bags but also supporting endeavors to develop new end markets for recycled polyethylene. One great example of this is the Plastics Industry Association’s NEMO for film project. The NEMO project is a cross-supply chain workgroup with a goal to meaningfully identify new opportunities for recycled plastic bags and film. For example, the NEMO workgroup is currently exploring the opportunity to blend recycled polyethylene into asphalt.
Protecting Our Environment
It is imperative that plastic bags are reused, recycled, or disposed of properly. Although plastic bags typically make up only 1% or less of beach litter, one plastic bag in the environment is one too many for us. In 2020, we will be piloting a grant program to help make sure communities have the resources they need to make their local cleanup initiative a success. Once launched, individuals and organizations arranging a local litter cleanup will have the opportunity to apply for the grant and use the funds on supplies and promotional materials for their program.
In addition to sponsoring local cleanup initiatives, many of our members contribute to programs like the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, an organization whose mission is to end plastic waste in the environment. While the majority of marine debris does not come from the United States, we want to be a part of a global solution to make sure plastic is used, reused, recycled, or disposed of properly. We are proud to support initiatives to develop infrastructure, enhance innovation around new technologies, educate stakeholders, and clean up the environment.
Our Vision for the Future
This is only the beginning. As an industry, we are committing ourselves to these efforts and more in the coming years. Every life cycle assessment of carryout bags that has ever been done shows that the traditional plastic grocery bag is the most environmentally friendly option at the counter, as long as it is disposed of properly. We are proud to manufacture products that meet that standard, but we can always do more. Our commitment is to go above and beyond in advancing sustainability around the country.