Plastic Film Recycling

What’s the difference between the plastic film around a package of chicken breasts and that found around a package of beef steaks? Believe it or not, these are likely two different kinds of plastic, requiring different recycling methods. Here are some facts about plastic film recycling that could help your company better understand and improve its waste and recycling processes.

The Many Types of Plastic Film

Film is a catchall term used to describe flexible materials that are usually less than 10 mil thick. It does not define a specific chemical makeup or recycling commodity. For instance, while the plastic wrap found around packages of chicken breasts and beef steaks may look very similar (and seemingly serve the same purpose) the former is usually made from a type of Polyethylene (such as LDPE), while the latter is likely a type of Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC). These are two different types of plastic resin, and have different properties. For instance, the permeability of PVC allows oxygen through, which is desirable for keeping red meat (like steak) looking fresh. This permeability is a less desirable trait for packaging poultry.

You can read more about the importance of sorting by resin type for plastic film recycling by reading our past article, Sorting Plastic for Industrial Recycling. But in short, each plastic resin has its own characteristics (such as strength, permeability, and flexibility) that affect how a product can be used. Therefore, when recycling plastic film, you may get a higher value from keeping different resins separate from each other. Here are a few examples of resin categories and some film products made from these materials:

Plastic Recycling - LDPE Film Example
Plastic wrap from palletized shipments is an example of film made from LDPE resin (Image Credit/Copyright Attribution: “Nordroden/Shutterstock”)

Polyethylene (PE) Film: PE comes in low density (LDPE), linear low density (LLDPE), medium density (MDPE) and high density (HDPE) forms. These different plastic films often are used for food packaging, stretch and shrink wrap, cereal bags and box liners, trash and grocery bags, and bubble wrap.

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) Film: The semi permeable nature of PVC allows just enough oxygen through to keep red meat (like beef) fresh and maintaining a bright red color. Aside from this, PVC is less commonly used in food packaging films, but often is found in labels and medical equipment (such as blood and I.V. bags).

Polypropylene (PP) Film: Because of this plastic’s high moisture barrier, it often is used as film for cheese packaging, sanitary products, and some snack food packaging.

Plastic Recycling - PET Film
Photography film is an example of film made from PET plastic resin (Image Credit/Copyright Attribution: “Cynthia Liang/Shutterstock”)

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) Film: Like PVC, PET is found mostly in non-food, non-packaging applications. For instance, it is used to make photographic and x-ray films. However, PET is used for metalized film, such as potato chips or microwave packaging.

These are just a few of the more common resin examples used for different types of film. Understanding the types of plastic film your company produces in its waste stream can help in determining how to recycle this material.

Factors Affecting Plastic Film Recycling Grades

Aside from resin type, factors such as clarity, wetness, and contamination levels can all affect the value, or grade, of your plastic film. For instance, clear film usually is priced higher than colored or opaque film. This is because, while clear film may be used to make colored film, it is difficult to do the reverse. Similarly, moisture content or the presence of contaminants such as food waste, metal, paper, and even other plastic types can reduce the value of your plastic film recycling.

Examples of Film Grades: LDPE film is a common waste item at manufacturing and distribution centers. Here are some examples of frequently accepted grade specifications for LDPE film:

  • A: This grade consist of 95% clean, clear, dry LDPE or LLDPE film. There is an allowance for up to 5% color, print, or label contamination with this film grade. Recyclers will also often accept up to 2% HDPE bags or 1% of pallet strapping. However, contaminants such as metal, food waste, and oils are not permissible. Also, rigid plastics (such as PET, PP, and PVC), and coated or laminated films should not be included.
  • B: Recyclers typically only expect 80% clear, clean LDPE or LLDPE film with this grade, and will allow up to 20% color contamination. Total contaminants should not exceed approximately 10% of this load, and should be limited to items such as PP film, injection grade tubs, loose paper, or minimal amount of HDPE.
  • C: This is one of the lowest LDPE film grades and consists of only 50% clear, clean LDPE or LLDPE films. Recyclers typically allow up to 50% of this load to be colored film, and HDPE or PP films typically are also accepted. Total contaminants should not exceed approximately 15%.

Plastic Recycling - LDPE Film Grade Examples
It’s important to note that recycling markets vary over time and by geography. The best method for getting the highest value from your plastic film recycling is to work with your recycling service provider to analyze your entire waste and recycling stream to determine the best methods for collecting and sorting materials.

Plastic Film Recycling Best Practices

Regardless of what resins or grades of film are in your waste stream, some best practices for plastic film recycling include the following:

  • Source Separate – By collecting film at the point where it enters your waste stream, you can save time on separation. Also, this method may help reduce chances for contamination.
  • Baling is Best – The more dense a recycling load, the more profitable. This is especially true when it comes to film, as this material has a tendency to expand unless compacted and bound. When possible, baling is usually the best option for collecting and condensing plastic film.
  • Keep Materials Clean and Dry – Once your film is collected and consolidated, be sure to store it in a clean, dry location. While this is a best practice for most recycling waste streams, it is especially important if you are trying to sort for higher grades of film.

We hope you found these film facts interesting and helpful. For additional resources on plastic recycling best practices, contact us today or check out one of our past related articles listed below.

***Feature Image Credit/Copyright Attribution: “Billion Photos/Shutterstock”