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Polyethylene (PE) films—used for grocery and produce bags as well as other film/bag applications—are a unique material in the recycling chain. Rather than being collected curbside, most PE films are recycled by consumers returning them to grocery stores and other retail outlets in the Wrap Recycling Action Program (WRAP) or similar retailer recycling programs. This is primarily because most Material Recovery Systems in the United States are not designed to capture and process flexible plastic films, such as PE films.

In 2016, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signed a memorandum agreement to increase PE film recycling; in 2017, just over 1 billion pounds of PE film was recycled in the U.S. the plastics value chain committed to recycle 2 billion pounds annually by 2020.

Plastics launched its NEMO PE Film project in early 2017 to identify opportunities and applications for recycled PE film. The members of PLASTICS are united in their view that recycling plastics is a priority, and identifying end markets for products is critical to the success of PE film recycling.

Plastic films are a stream of material that, to date, had limited and exhausted domestic end markets in the U.S. Currently, the primary recycled PE film product is composite lumber and recycled films or sheets; but these applications are operating near capacity, so more end uses are needed. In addition, economic pressures from virgin resin require determining the minimum amount of processing of PE film that needs to be performed to be useful in products.

NEMO: Film developed a phased approach for addressing the challenges in recycling of PE film.

Phase 0: Information Gathering/Literature Review

Some plastic products such as PET bottles are recycled back into similar products, but other products and polymers are often used for entirely different products than their initial applications. The NEMO film workgroup commissioned a study by to collect prior research and news coverage of new and non-traditional uses for using recycled plastics, including PE (LLDPE, LDPE, HDPE), PP, PET and more.

Literature Review: Using Recycled Plastics for Compounding and Additives (May 29, 2018)

Phase I: Processing and Initial Characterization

PE film samples from three different sources were evaluated to understand the range of contamination, processing methods, and to evaluate the mechanical and physical properties of blended PE streams for use in film, sheet and pipe applications.

Phase I Technology Package (July 20, 2018)

Phase II: Product Testing and Production

Begun in Phase I, thirteen-plus new potential end markets were identified in which recycled PE film could be used. Phase II began real-world testing for six end markets using PE film collected by two return-to-retail sources. Results of the report identified several promising new applications which could utilize approximately 100 million pounds of PE film per year.

Phase II Technology Package: Product Testing and Production (October 2019)

In addition to the six end markets tested above, additional focused work has begun on using PE film in asphalt. This has been spun off into a separate, but complementary project called NEMO: Film in Asphalt.

Phase III: Processing Refinement

Furthering the processing evaluations from Phase I, the group will be refining the processing of PE film to determine the relationship between processing steps and product properties. The goal is to reduce unnecessary over-processing to maximize efficiency and associated economic savings.

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