SC Johnson, the 20-year owner of Ziploc brand, has developed a way to recycle the popular food storage bags in municipal curbside systems. As the Ziploc bag approaches the age of 50, recycling rates of this and similar products remain low – meaning the vast majority of the 1 trillion or so plastic bags used each year end up in a landfill.
Should the company’s pilot recycling project prove successful, this new process shows potential to expand curbside recycling across the U.S.
Few cities accept plastic bags — including Ziplocs and similar interlocking bags — within their waste collection streams. Single-stream collection facilities often cannot (or will not) separate plastic bags from the glass, metal, plastic bottles, and other recyclables because the thin material can easily become caught and tangled within machines. For years, supermarkets and other retail locations have stepped in to collect plastic bags in order to boost waste diversion efforts.
But only a tiny percentage of these bags end up recycled within this system. The first problem is that consumers need to remember to bring their used storage bags, plastic grocery bags, dry cleaning bags and other thin plastic film to a retail location for recycling. And upon collection, many plastic bag recyclers weed out soiled bags or other materials that are deemed unusable. SC Johnson acknowledged in Monday’s announcement that at best, 0.20 percent of Ziploc branded plastic bags are ultimately recycled.
SC Johnson claimed its research took the company to Europe, where it found examples of operations that could take plastic bags — soiled or not — and churn them into new products. The company that scored SC Johnson’s attention melts down thin plastic bags into pellets, which can then be turned into a resin suitable for manufacturing products like plastic garbage bags.
As this is a pilot project in its earliest stages, SJ Johnson has not yet offered a clear timetable as to when such garbage bags or other recycled products would be available for purchase – although it says limited quantities will be offered on the company’s online store by the end of this year.
This is quite the change for SC Johnson, which had claimed that most plastic bags captured by current waste streams were upcycled into products like composite lumber. So, is this a sustainability step up, or a step down, for the Wisconsin-based company? SC Johnson is trading upcycling tiny quantities of its products for the promise of recycling materials into garbage bags — another disposable item. Though again, this is still just a promise.
SC Johnson’s task, as is the case with the consumer packaged goods (CPG) sector at large, is convincing more municipalities to accept Ziplocs and other plastics into their recycling collection streams. That is a tall order considering that only about a third of all potentially recyclable items are ultimately reprocessed into new materials, according to Environmental Protection Agency data. The three-year slump in fossil fuel prices and the proliferation of fracking also contribute to a low plastics recycling rate.
The good news for SC Johnson is if this technology can scale, this $10 billion company, along with some of its competitors, can truly become leaders when it comes to sustainability. Advocates of recycling have long said that waste needs to be treated as a valuable resource, not as worthless garbage. But markets for recycling these materials still face a long road ahead. This tiny step by SC Johnson could earn it even more trust for its brands, a value difficult to quantify but eagerly sought by CPG companies in a crowded and hyper-competitive marketplace.
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