Collecting Film Plastics Through Return to Retail is a Viable Option

An estimated 10 billion pounds of plastic film enter North America annually and residents want to recycle it. CIF consulted with Nina Butler of Moore Recycling Associates for her expertise on how best to recycle plastic film. She provided insights on best practices from collection and processing through to end market development and the pros and cons of return to retail vs. curbside collection in her remarks at this spring’s ORW. This blog provides a summary.

Plastic film processing in a MRF ranges in costs from $1,500 to more than $2,000/tonne depending on the facility

End market value of curbside vs. return to retail film plastic Source: Moore Recycling Associates

Plastic film offers characteristics that make it an ideal packaging solution but unfortunately, a less than ideal material to manage in a Material Recovery Facility (MRF). Plastic film is lightweight and easy to collect but takes several hundred thousand pieces, a substantial number of labour hours, and a significant investment in equipment to produce a single tonne of marketable material.

Once in the MRF, plastic film often lays flat overtop of other recyclables, preventing capture of higher value materials. Loose film is often sorted into the wrong bunker or can be wound around equipment. Plastic film that arrives as a tied-off sac containing other recyclables presents a technical issue for bag breakers and film grabbers which often increases the manual sorting burden downstream where manual sorters are hard-pressed to open all the bags. The result is that many are unopened and move directly into landfill bins.

The bottom line: plastic film is difficult and expensive to sort in a MRF, and only a fraction of what enters the facility is captured and available for sale.

Cost (red) vs. benefit (green) of film recovery in $US/ton Source: Moore Recycling Associates

A viable alternative: Return to retail programs for collection & processing

Studies show that return to retail programs generally cost less to manage and the material marketed earns higher end market revenue. Here’s why:

Infrastructure – Retailers already deal with pallet wrap and other recyclables so they have baling equipment and operations staff to manage it. They also have the reverse transportation logistics available so they can send the recyclables back to distribution centers in trucks, when emptied of inventory. The centres are equipped to consolidate bales and coordinate material sales. Adding plastic film returned by residents represents only a small additional cost.

Markets – Materials are generally clean, dry and contaminant-free and are more in demand by markets. In contrast, curbside film has held just a fraction of the value of retail film as shown in the graph.

Material Collected = Material Marketed – Lower participation levels for return to retail programs are offset by reduced material loss in processing.

According to Nina Butler, “with return to retail, the amount of film entering local MRFs can drop by as much as 75%, reducing the sorting burden, and the productivity losses that result from sorting line shutdowns to free equipment of plastic film that has wound itself into all the moving parts, all while still recovering substantial volumes of plastic. With education some retailers have seen increases in consumer returned material of 125%*.”

Resources available to help promote a return-to-retail program in your community

Return to retail programming is a cost effective option for plastic film collection, processing and sale and it merits consideration as part of your long-term waste diversion strategy.

If you’re looking to connect with existing return to retail programs in your community, visit, which can help you find the closest sites to you and help promote the service to residents.

For more information on CIF’s plastic film work
Email Jessica Landry.