Hilex Poly: Plastic Bag Exec Speaks to Debate
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.