To the average consumer, Hilex Poly, a manufacturer and recycler of plastic bags and other products, is relatively unknown, but to anti-plastic activists, the company is generally loathed. Their lawsuit against Chico Bags, makers of reusable bags, did not help.
Meanwhile, in the media, the plastic bag issue continues to be hotly debated across the spectrum, with everybody from The Wall Street Journal and GreenBiz weighing in on the issue. The common plastic bag has become a symbol of our disposable society, thus marking the great chasm between environmental and economic concerns.
Recently, I spoke with Phil Rozenski, Director of Sustainability and Marketing for Hilex Poly to clarify the company's position on these issues:
Describe the Hilex Poly business model.
We are the largest manufacturer of plastic bags and films in the US. We not only produce plastic products but wanted to find a sustainable business model and we saw recycling as a future for plastics. We actually built our own recycling facility. Last year, we achieved over 30 percent of recycled content (meaning 70 percent was virgin material -Ed.) as we work on technologies and innovations to improve. We’re proud, as an American company, and employ over 1200 people at our nine production sites and our headquarters in South Carolina.
How many plastic bags are made per year? And where?
The US International Trade Commission has the best reported data. In 2009, plastic retail bag use in the US was about 102 billion and about 70 percent of that is manufactured here in the US and about 30 percent come from abroad. There is a perception that if something is plastic or inexpensive, it comes from overseas, when plastics is predominately a US-based industry. I think we have all came to associate plastic with overseas production and that's just not the case.
Also, a lot of people perceive that plastic is made form petroleum, when, in fact, it is mostly from natural gas - a refining by-product called polyethylene. Because the US has an abundance of natural gas, it is relatively inexpensive resource compared to other countries. There are different styles of plastic but when it comes to plastic retail bags, 95 percent here in in the US are made with polyethylene.
The single-use plastic bag has become the Wal-Mart of packaging – both widely-used and widely-hated. Why do you think that is?
When it comes to plastic bags, there’s a big demand. When people check out, they are given a choice – paper or plastic - and most often, they choose plastic.
We’ve had surveying done and in the hard data, 90 percent of people say they reuse some or all of the plastic bags they get from the store. A common example is that people reuse the bags at home, especially for storage of items. The fact that they are reused so often explains the demand.
They sure get used a lot for doggie doo-ty.
Yes, different people, different uses. That’s what has made them popular, a reuse factor. We’ve seen time and again, people state they they reuse all or some of the bags.
"The American Chemistry Council recently released its annual report on recycling of plastic film, the catch-all term that includes plastic bags, product wraps and commercial shrink film. The report, developed by Moore Recycling Associates, Inc., found that the amount recycled rose four percent in 2011, reaching one billion pounds. Most of it -- 58 percent -- reentered the market in the U.S., as opposed to a foreign market, and this was largely due to a growth in the plastic and composite lumber industry, the report found."
--Philadelphia Inquirer, 2/27/13, 'Plastic bag recycling: How are we doing?'
Dozens of countries, cities and states, including 47 municipalities in California, have adopted ordinances banning plastic bags. (China will cease production of ultra-thin plastic bags and their distribution by June 1.) What is your reaction to this?
Our pushback is we think consumers should have a choice. If they want a paper bag or a plastic bag, they should be educated. Almost everybody has access to recycle plastic bags. In California, there is a law (AB 2449) that all grocery stores have to provide that option. The law states that grocery stores of a certain size must have a place for consumers to drop off plastic bags for recycling.
It’s important to us to stress that this is an American-based industry – an industry that employs 30,000 people.
So, what do you think is driving the bag bans?
They are driven by myths and misunderstandings. According to the EPA, plastic bags account for about .5 percent of the total waste stream and the vast majority are being used as trash bags. The misperception has caused a lot of this legislation. We need to educate consumers that there is a better way, that this is a 100 percent recycleable product.
Also, this system (grocery store recycling stations) contains other recycled content, many other bags that can be recycled – newspaper bags, dry cleaning bags, electronics wrapping - all can be recycled in this program. Rather than banning, we believe in building a recycling stream.
Tell me specifically about the Hilex Poly effort, BagtheBan.
BagtheBan is about trying to educate people with a web resource to correct myths and misperceptions about plastic bag, including what they are made of. I’ve seen people equate the war in Iraq with plastic bags - in regards to oil - which is interesting to me as a retired military officer.
Understand, there is a cost savings for us as a company to recycle these bags so we want as many of them to be recycled as possible.
So BagtheBan works against these laws?
We do support consumer choice. We want to educate people to be able to make informed choices. We are for protecting the individuals’ choice.
The EPA says that in 2010, 31 million tons of plastic bags, sacks and wraps entered the waste stream (comprising 12.4 percent) of which 12 percent was recycled. Meanwhile, the American Chemistry Council, says that plastic bags make up .5 percent of the waste stream and 95.5 tons were recycled. Why does there always seem to be such a gap between the plastic industry's numbers and those from the EPA?
The numbers are identical and it comes from the same source. What happens in the EPA report is that there are many types of plastic. People don’t realize what the definition of each one is and you have to pull out just the polyethylene data. The EPA numbers actually include bags, sacks, and wraps. Plastic bags fall under the LDPE category, which is the number you have to look for.
Also, the 2010 EPA report is likely 2009 data. With regards to the recycling numbers, a lot of activists groups, say only 5 percent of bags are recycled. EPA says about 15 percent, and we think that’s good. We’re trying to keep bags from becoming litter or going in to landfill. So, after people are reusing, what’s left? All that’s left is 25 percent - you have to look at the whole system. The reason the recycling numbers are different is that people need go beyond recycling and look at reuse.
[A report released last year revealed that the recycling of post-consumer plastic bags and wraps reached nearly 972 million pounds in 2010.This represents a 14 percent increase over 2009 and a 50 percent increase since 2005. The report was conducted by Moore Recycling Associates Inc. on behalf of the American Chemistry Council (ACC). --Ed.]
What can you say regarding your lawsuit against Chico Bag?
That was a case about commercial speech and not related to environmentalism; it was about commercial speech in the marketplace. By that, what we mean is, you have to use accurate and factual data in the marketplace. That case has since been resolved and we’re very happy with the outcome of it.
I talked recently with Pick-Up America, a group of students traveling across America in a bus picking up trash. They tell me that no matter where they go, they are primarily cleaning up plastic. Also, there is a tremendous amount of documented harm done to marine life from plastic pollution. Any response?
First thing, I think it is admirable that anybody is bringing attention to the fact that people shouldn’t litter. We work with a group called ER Planning, a primary contractor for litter studies, and have looked at what happens when you have a randomized study; we see volunteer groups come up with higher numbers and when you conduct an actual study, the results actually drop down to ½ a percent. Without them having a mathematical study, I’m not surprised that they have separate numbers. I can only hypothesize about where they are going - public parks, for example - if they are going places that are representative of a community.
Whenever we see contracted studies, we are just not getting those kinds of numbers*. The state of Texas and Toronto have all done contracted studies. As for the kids on the bus, they are creating an awareness of litter and that is a great thing for reduction.
[*On that point, Hilex Poly followed up with me via email: "In a letter from Steven Stein, Project Manager for the Keep America Beautiful 2009 National Litter Study and Principal of Environmental Resources Planning, clarified the false statistics about plastic bag litter that were being quoted by the City of Austin, TX. Stein wrote, 'page three of your memo indicates that plastic bags constitute 2.2 percent of litter. The 2009 National Litter Study found that plastic bags of all types comprise only 0.6 percent of litter. Percentages for categories that constituted minute portions of roadside litter, such as plastic bags, were not addressed in the 2009 National Litter Study.'"]
Can you explain why my local market pays me to bring my own cloth bag?
Some stores have taken an approach where they want to encourage reusable bags. It’s just a different approach to encourage people to bring a bag. Every retailer has a different approach. Some stores only offer plastic bags, this is just about stores trying to differentiate themselves. I know Target does it too. Rather than taking a punitive approach, they are using a reward-behavior model.
What were you doing before you came to Hilex Poly?
I came from the military and the reason I came was because they wanted someone to work on recycled products and help educate retailers. We have created jobs, we’ve learned a lot and we have to share our information.
With regards to the many anti-plastic activists out there, would you be willing to sit down with them?
I would love to. Last year, we had two significant meetings of this type. There is an open invitation to anyone who would like to tour our recycling plant. It’s in Indiana, in the central US, which makes it easy for us to recycle from all around the country. Even if they have different perspectives, we’re all for people who are trying to do the right thing and are just trying to get then to understand what we know. There are many things we can do beyond the industry.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m appreciative of you taking the time. This is not just about product and manufacturing, it’s about protecting people’s ability to choose; there’s a better way to do this.
More plastic bag statistics and resources:
If I've learned anything from delving into this issue it's that the breakdown of numbers are where it gets sticky. Fact-checkers need to be cautious about how the plastic categories (bags, packaging, etc.) are broken down.
We'd love to hear from consumers on this issue, as well as any scientists, activists and civic leaders. What are the laws and practices in your town? What do you think about the plastic bag issue - bag as usual or ban forever?