Plastic film recycling drop-off locations like this one are spreading throughout the state.
Wisconsin WRAP helps retailers and consumers give new life to plastic bags and film.
Casey R. Schmitt
When Amanda Haffele looks at a plastic bag, she doesn't see a piece of trash. The thin plastic film used for retail and grocery bags, dry cleaning bags and other packaging materials is, after all, reusable and recyclable and doesn't belong in a landfill in the first place. But Haffele sees even more. As Dunn County's Recycling Specialist, she sees an opportunity, and businesses all over Wisconsin are beginning to see the same thing.
In 2013, the Department of Natural Resources partnered with the American Chemistry Council's Flexible Film Recycling Group and GreenBlue's Sustainable Packaging Coalition on the Wrap Recycling Action Program (WRAP). With WRAP, Wisconsin is the pilot site for plastic film recycling nationwide. For people like Haffele and other Wisconsin recyclers, collecting everyday plastic film at stores, loading docks and at distribution centers, is an exciting way to create jobs, build community and protect the environment.
DNR's Recycling Program Coordinator Cynthia Moore explains, "Many people know that shopping bags can be recycled. Far fewer are aware that other plastic wrap —like plastic newspaper bags, produce and bread bags, stretch film around furniture or electronics and more —can be used again."
Manufacturers like Trex® can use recycled plastic film to make new products like composite lumber, park benches and playground equipment. As a public/private campaign, WRAP puts businesses, local governments and volunteers in contact with the information they need to facilitate waste reduction efforts and model sustainable practices of their own.
For Haffele, it's the potential for community and business involvement that makes the initiative so exciting. In 2013, for instance, Wisconsin's Council on Recycling held 10 public meetings with 60 industry representatives, recycling professionals and local citizens to discuss their potential roles and the benefits of plastic film recycling. Council member and Dunn County Solid Waste Director George Hayducsko explains, "We're working with national firms. We're working locally. To me, that's a good mix."
WRAP creates statewide networks for plastic film recyclers and processors and provides free information with the goal of bringing common interests together. Just about everyone uses plastic products on a daily basis and plastic's light weight means it requires less energy to transport than other packaging alternatives. WRAP encourages local governments, retailers, schools, consumers and others to use less plastic film such as bags and wrap, and to recycle those when they are no longer usable. From consumers to stores to industrial centers, there truly is a role for everyone.
A role for everyone
In Dunn County, the process starts with individuals. Even before kicking off the county's WRAP campaign in June, Hayducsko and Haffele saw people collecting plastics in their homes, in office closets and even tucked beneath car seats.
"People were already doing it without us telling them," Hayducsko exclaims. Yet not everyone knew what to do with the material once they had collected it. Most curbside recycling programs will not accept it because plastic wrap, bags and other plastic film can clog recycling and sorting machinery.
"The public wants to recycle this material. Businesses want to do it, too," Hayducsko explains. "So how do we make it work?"
The answer is often just down the road. Grocery and other retail stores, distribution centers, volunteer groups and local governments can set up collection programs with their recyclers and haulers and register their locations as community drop-off centers. These public and private sites not only generate the largest amount of clean, recyclable plastic film, they often have the space and resources to collect and store returned bags and other plastic film from customers as well. In Dunn County, several stores are registered drop-off centers. The Dunn County Solid Waste Program has also registered drop-off locations for plastic film at its eight existing collection stations.
Once the plastic film is collected, it needs to be baled and transferred to a recycler. Material from the Dunn County Solid Waste collection stations are transported to Menomonie's Indianhead Enterprises, a nonprofit rehabilitation facility and vocational center for individuals with disabilities and other barriers to employment. In collaboration with Trex®, Indianhead received a plastic film baler on loan and became a recycling drop-off point. As plastic film recycling increases, Indianhead hopes to produce multiple bales per week, at 800 to 1,000 pounds each, providing enough work for four additional jobs for individuals with disabilities.
Wisconsin WRAP is still in its early stages, but the Dunn County model of partnership among consumers, the county and businesses like Indianhead, is now being replicated statewide.
The next steps for Dunn County include making the process more efficient and removing the need for county-run plastics collection and delivery.
"Our goal," says Hayducsko, "is to do this without utilizing additional resources, like fuel."
The county has expanded partnerships with local businesses and with the University of Wisconsin-Stout. It has applied for grants to allow Indianhead and other local companies to purchase hand balers —decreasing total costs, minimizing the need for multiple trips and increasing financial payback.
Grants and local business involvement, says Haffele, are "the most important parts of this entire project."
As WRAP begins to expand, it's an exciting time in Dunn County and around the state. Individual consumers have the material and the interest. Local governments and volunteers are starting to spread the word. Retail drop-off points and other businesses have access to haulers and storage space. Each is crucial to the project as WRAP ushers in a new era of Wisconsin recycling.
Hayducsko explains, "We have all of this plastic going to a landfill. It provides no benefit to us by going there. Instead, it can create jobs and products and avoid waste." Plastic film is not only recycled as new plastic products; it can build opportunity, inspiration, motivation and community pride.
Casey R. Schmitt is a communications specialist for the DNR's Bureau of Waste and Materials Management.