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Innovators in Eco-Friendly Packaging and Shipping Supplies

The Ultimate Guide to Thin Film Recycling and How2Recycle Labeling

The Ultimate Guide

Thin Film Recycling and How2Recycle® Labeling

by Saloni Doshi & Jessica Dowding  • published August 8, 2023

In the world of plastics, there are few materials as ever-present in our lives as thin film. This is equally true when it comes to packaging. You have many factors to weigh while designing your packaging. When thin film plastics enter the equation, you might feel like you’re following a maze with no clear end. We’re here to help you navigate the nuance of thin film in your packaging – including thin film recycling, how legislation should be factored into your decisions, How2Recycle Labeling, and recycling certifications to consider.

Summary of Thin Film Recycling

Thin film polyethylene (#4 or #2) is recyclable. In most US municipalities, consumers must take the thin film to store drop-off bins. The only material in these bins should be clean, dry polyethylene. Polypropylene, multi-layered standup pouches, bioplastics, PVC, and other non-PE films should not be recycled. New regulations and increased public commitment to sustainability are leading to an increased demand for recycling clarity across all materials, especially plastic packaging. This leads extruders, converters, and brands to review their recyclability labeling to ensure it is accurate and includes more explicit guidance to consumers. Currently, most thin film PE is remanufactured into composite decking through manufacturers such as Trex. However, there is an emerging demand for recycled content in PE packaging, leading to increased investment in capacity and infrastructure for converting PE film back into PE packaging. Remanufacturing PE film into composite decking is more forgiving of paper and other small contaminants than converting PE film back into PE packaging. This disconnect has led to diverging requirements in thin film recycling certification. NexTrex, Trex’s certification for confirming that a thin film package can be remanufactured back into composite decking, allows paper shipping labels and small amounts of non-PE plastic. NexTrex does not allow for any metal components and has big issues with substances that add grease, dirt, and oil to the recycled packaging. How2Recycle, on the other hand, has very recently adjusted its thin-film recycling guidelines and requirements with a focus on evaluating whether or not PE packaging can be recycled back into PE packaging. These adjustments mean that if a brand wants to print a How2Recycle Store Drop-Off label on their PE mailers, they must prove that they are either using an APR-approved shipping label or that a consumer can easily remove their shipping label.
The Ultimate Guide

Thin Film Recycling and How2Recycle® Labeling

Our full resource is divided into several sections:
  • Why the Conversation About Thin Film Plastic Matters
  • Reducing Thin Film Plastic Use
  • Challenges of Using and Recycling Thin Film Plastics
  • Overview of Thin Film Plastic Recycling Methods
  • Recyclable vs Non-Recyclable Films and Common Contaminants
  • EcoEnclose’s Approach to Thin Film Plastics
  • How Shipping Labels Impact Thin Film Recyclability
  • Certifications and Prequalifications for Thin Film Recycling
  • Details on NexTrex and How2Recycle Certification and Labeling
  • EPR and Legislation Related to Recycling Thin Film Plastics
  • Guide to Recycling EcoEnclose’s Thin Film-Based Packaging
  • Organizations In the Thin Film Packaging and Recycling Landscape
  • Next Steps for Your Brand
Read on to dive deep into thin film recycling and How2Recycle labeling.
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The Importance of Understanding Thin Film Plastic Recycling

Thin film plastic was created in the mid-1900s in Europe. Over time, it evolved from a novel material to one of the most common types of plastic in use today. So while thin films aren’t new, the issues surrounding them are relevant today more than ever. And all plastic films, including well-known polyethylene, present three unique challenges:

Plastic Film Is Produced and Used In Huge Volume

Every year, massive amounts of plastic film are created, used, and discarded worldwide - typically after just one use. The EPA estimated that, in 2018, Americans generated nearly 9 billion pounds of PE (polyethylene) films, bags, and wraps. Some believe the actual number could be even higher since data from California showed 2.6 billion pounds of plastic film in the waste stream of just one state. Plastic film’s volume means this material significantly impacts the planet.

It's Difficult to Process Flimsy Plastic in Curbside Recycling Systems

Film plastic, like bags and wraps, is thin and flimsy, and many are also stretchy. This makes it very difficult for standard single-stream recycling systems to process them. Because of this, plastic films aren’t accepted in most curbside recycling bins. We’ll address this more in-depth later, but this limited recyclability means most film plastics are sent to the landfill – or worse.

Certain Plastic Film Products Have a Higher Chance of Becoming Litter

Of the top 10 most common forms of beachline litter, two are “film”:
  • Cigarettes (2,117,931)
  • Food wrappers / Containers (1,140,222)
  • Beverage Bottles (1,065,171)
  • Plastic Grocery Bags (1,019,902)
  • Caps / Lids (958,893)
  • Cups, plates, forks, knives, spoons (692,767)
  • Straws / Stirrers (611,048)
  • Glass beverage bottles (521,730)
  • Beverage cans (339,875)
  • Paper Bags (298,332)
Film plastic’s lightweight nature is one reason, as the wind can more easily carry these packaging items from a trash bin or someone’s pocket. Another is that some film-based products, like grocery bags and chip bags, are often used on the go. When plastic films escape into the environment, they threaten wildlife and, over time, break down into harmful microplastics.

Reducing Plastic Film Use Worldwide Is Essential

One of the most important steps we can all take is to minimize the amount of packaging material we use. Through that lens, finding ways to eliminate plastic film thoughtfully should be an important part of any discussion around thin film recyclability. However, there’s more to this than simply replacing plastic with paper. Instead, take a thoughtful approach and consider these factors to ensure your chosen alternatives have a less damaging impact on the planet than plastic film.

1) Eliminate materials

Is there a way to eliminate the need for this packaging altogether? Examples include:
  • Get rid of plastic wraps around fruits or vegetables
  • Redesign a container so it doesn’t need a layer of outer plastic film
  • Streamline packaging to reduce excess or waste

2) Explore reusables

Can you choose alternatives that can be refilled or reused? Examples include:
  • Bring reusable grocery bags instead of disposables
  • Store snacks in a reusable container vs zipper bag
  • Package your product in a refillable tin vs a plastic bag

3) WordStr with recycled

Swap out thin film if you cannot find a solution with 1) and 2). While assessing alternatives:
  • Assess the lifecycle of the alternative packaging
  • Look for 100% recycled materials which as must PCW as possible
  • Evaluate how new packaging will affect manufacturing, shipping, and other parts of your process

Plastic Film is Not Going Away - Even With Reduction

Even as we thoughtfully reduce and replace plastic film, aided by changes like plastic bag bans, the reality is that plastic film will continue to be a part of our lives for now.
 
Additionally, we’ve found that in many cases, a recycled plastic film package - such as EcoEnclose poly mailers - can be the most environmentally friendly packaging solution to consider. Eco-focused brands shipping their apparel could consider recycled poly mailers, recycled paper mailers, or reusable mailers – and, after weighing the ecological and functional pros and cons, many will choose poly mailers. This is because they have a significantly lower carbon footprint, even though they are more difficult to recycle than paper.
 
We developed this resource recognizing that (1) plastic film will still be around for a long time, (2) there are many reasons why sustainability-oriented brands will choose recycled plastic packaging over other alternatives, and (3) recycling rates for this material can only increase if brands and their consumers are well informed.
 
We hope this resource helps your company confidently move forward as you strive to care for the planet while growing your business. Now, let’s dive into the world of plastic film recycling, labeling, and certification.

Big-Picture Overview of Thin Film Recycling

Recycling thin film plastics is a complex undertaking involving many factors that have changed over time and continue to shift today. However, it’s still an important one to address – so here’s a breakdown of some of the core topics relating to this issue.

Can Plastic Film Be Collected and Recycled?

The short answer - yes. But for most people, it’s not as easy as dropping it into their curbside bins.

Plastic Film is not Curbside Recyclable in Most Municipalities

Most curbside recycling programs do not accept plastic bags, film, or wraps. Some consumers may put plastic films in their recycling collection bins anyway, often because they don’t realize these materials create a major problem for recycling centers. Plastic film is a type of soft plastic that is difficult to sort out with equipment used by most MRFs (the facilities that take in and sort your blue bin recycling). Film quickly gets tangled in these recycling center sorting machines. Facilities then have to stop production, and workers must take the dangerous step of cutting bags out of sorting equipment before lines can continue.
Some cities are losing up to $1000 daily because of these stoppages. According to the City of Phoenix, plastic bags cost them $1 million in lost time yearly. This leads to recycling becoming less productive and less profitable.

PE Plastic Film is Typically Recycled at Store Drop-Off Programs

Have you ever seen a collection bin for grocery bags as you left the store? If so, you’ve just seen plastic film collection at work. Store drop-off programs have been the primary means of recovering clean and dry bags, film, and wrap for over 20 years. Consumers drop their thin film into bins at the front of retail stores. Retailers then consolidate the material with other “back of house” films like pallet wrap. This is then sold to reclaiming operations. These operations are largely companies making products like composite lumber, bags and film, containers, crates and pallets. To find a recycling center near you, check out the .
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EcoEnclose also has a poly film take-back program for #2 or #4 plastic film. We recycle through EcoCycle, one of the most forward-thinking recyclers in the United States, to process your film into new materials.

Film Will Likely be Curbside Recyclable Long Term

While there aren’t any conclusive results yet, efforts are being made to explore the viability of curbside recycling of film. Last year, the Materials Recovery for the Future (MRF) released a report on a for flexible plastic packaging (FPP) run by J.P. Mascaro & Sons in Birdsboro, Pennsylvania. The report’s primary finding concludes that curbside recycling of FPP is practical and economically feasible.
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According to the findings, the TotalRecycle MRF has diverted more than 2.7 million pounds of FPP from landfill due to the curbside recycling program. While RRS says numerous end markets tested the mixed FPP bales (also known as rFlex) produced by TotalRecycle, the primary market has been roof cover board in place of gypsum drywall and, the company adds, notable results also were obtained in trials to reprocess rFlex into blown film. One important thing to note is that MRFF is a project of the American Chemistry Council, an industry organization with a vested interest in this initiative working out. Findings have to be viewed in this context. That being said, the potential to expand recycling programs for thin films does exist, and we believe that in the next five to ten years, there will be far more infrastructure nationwide to recycle materials that - today - cannot be sorted by municipal MRFs.

What Does PE Film Get Recycled Into?

There are two main ways that polyethylene can be recycled. Depending on which process is used, the result differs.

Mechanical Recycling

This process is a long-standing approach that turns plastic film into pellets and back into a new plastic material. During the recycling process, plastic film is brought into the facility in baled form and pulled apart by hand or guillotine. It is then fed into a shredder and water-fed grinder, and cut into pieces. The film is then washed and inspected for contamination. Once clean and dry, the film is placed into an extruder where heat and pressure melt the plastic. The molten plastic is then released from the extruder, formed into fine strands, cooled, and chopped into pellets. Manufacturers use the pellets to produce new plastic film products. Recycled plastic film is made into composite lumber, which is used for benches, decks, and playground sets. It is also recycled and reprocessed into small pellets used to make plastic containers, crates, pipes, new plastic bags, and pallets. More recently, efforts are also being made to turn plastic film back into plastic film and other non-durable plastic packaging items.

Chemical Recycling

Lower-quality plastic film may be best suited for chemical recycling, that uses heat and/or chemical reactions to break down used plastics into their molecular level. At this point, the material can be turned back into resin or used for fuel. Chemical recycling isn’t our preferred of the two methods because it uses more energy and turns plastic into fuel more often than we’d like.
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Once Plastic Film is Collected, is it Actually Getting Recycled?

The short answer to this is also - yes. But, the effectiveness of plastic film recycling is a subject of debate among many in the industry. This was compounded by a 2021 bill passed in California: SBS343. So, let’s dig in further on this question.

CA SBS323 and Plastic Film Recycling

As described on prohibits use of the chasing arrows or any other indicator of recyclability on products and packaging unless certain criteria are met. Key requirements of the law include:
  • Collection: The product "is collected for recycling by recycling programs for jurisdictions that collectively encompass at least 60 percent of the population of the state."
  • Sortation: The product "is sorted into defined streams for recycling processes."
  • Recycling/Reclaiming: "The defined streams (are) sent to and reclaimed at a reclaiming facility consistent with the requirements of the Basel Convention." The product must "be made of a material type and form that routinely becomes feedstock used in the production of new products or packaging."

Varying Data on Access, Collection, and Recycling

interpreted the “collection” bullet to mean that 60% of the population must have curbside access. Since national access to thin film recycling is below 60%, deemed thin film PE plastic as being a material that should not be labeled as recyclable. A separate study, conducted in detail by GreenBlue and published one year after the policy recommendations of California’s Statewide Commission on Recycling Markets and Curbside Recycling, showed very different results. This study found that:
  • 88% of the population in California lives within 3 miles (aerial distance) of a retail drop off bin. 93% of the population lives within a 15 min drive and 64% lives within a 5 min drive.
  • Further, these retailers are typically ones citizens are already driving to as part of their normal day-to-day routines.
  • This film is finding ready markets. Of the 17.45 MM lbs of PE films and bags collected in CA, RRS estimates that 14.8 and 15.7 MM lbs are reclaimed.
  • Depending on the end market, the recovery rate is assumed to range between 85% and 90%.
The varying conclusions made by these different studies illustrates the importance of clarity. While thin film PE is recyclable, it is not curbside recyclable and more needs to be done (by brands, converters and companies like EcoEnclose) to provide consumers with the right information they need to responsibly and properly dispose of their packaging. In answering the question “Are Things Actually Getting Recycled”, we believe there are two parts to this question.

1) Are People Actually Recycling the Material?

Unfortunately, in the case of plastic film today, consumers are not recycling it at high rates. Data ranges from 1.8% (The Recycling Partnership) to 9.1% to 12% (EPA). In truth, it is likely that a reasonably moderate rate of commercial thin film (such as pallet wrap) is properly recycled while a relatively low rate of consumer film is recycled. This low consumer participation rate is likely due to the fact that:
  1. Customers have to remember to bring the bags with them to specific stores
  2. There are many public messages suggesting that materials don’t actually get recycled, which dissuades people from recycling in the first place

2) Once the Material Is In the Bin, Does It Really Get Recycled?

Thoughtful studies we’ve seen suggest that, yes, this material is getting recycled at very high rates of 85%+. A few reputable data sources have backed up this evidence:
  • GreenBlue conducted a study in California showing that 85-90% of material put into store drop off bins was successfully sold to reclaimers such as Trex.
  • In Colorado’s front range, post-consumer plastic film is a reliably sold material – with Trex as one of the main buyers
  • Trex purchased, and actively used, 431 million pounds of LDPE in 2021 (Trex has a large preference for post-consumer front of house waste versus back of house waste like pallet film)
Making conclusions here is complicated – and coming to a verdict without attention to the complexity and nuance of the topic runs the risk of doing serious damage.
Unfortunately, in places with plastic bag bans, front-of-house bag collection bins are disappearing. This is a significant environmental issue! It means that all the other plastic film products a household gets (packaging for toilet paper, bubble mailers, cereal bags, etc) are sent to the landfill. All the while, there is a perfectly good market waiting to buy that material. Plastic film is found throughout our households and supply chains, so discouraging people from recycling has a marked negative impact on the environment. On the other hand, having plastic bags everywhere labeled as “100% recyclable” is also a problem. This labeling oversimplifies the issue and can be used to stifle conversations about the environmental challenges that plastic film poses.

A Summary of Thin Film PE Recyclability

Based on our years of research and experience, here’s our response.

Yes, thin film PE is recyclable.

Right now, it’s mostly downcycled into durable goods. Technology to sort and reprocess it is advancing, so more material will be recycled back into plastic packaging over time.

We need to invest our efforts in increasing the rate at which this material is recycled.

The inconvenience of access and misinformation are major obstacles to increasing consumer participation in thin film recycling.

Even though PE film is recyclable and we need to increase its rate of recycling, it still makes sense to reduce the use of this material, particularly for use cases that have a higher likelihood of becoming litter and marine pollution.

Efforts to continue reducing plastic use and finding thoughtful, truly more ecological alternatives are critical. Here is a helpful framework to use when looking for ways to shift away from or reduce plastic film use and do so thoughtfully.
  1. Always evaluate the potential to eliminate or streamline packaging to reduce the need for materials.
  2. Explore reusable and refillable options before looking for alternative disposals.
  3. When considering alternatives, make every effort to eliminate or redesign packaging that is likely to become litter. Thin grocery bags (which are thin film recyclable) are a common culprit. Another main offender is multi-layered packaging like chip or snack bags, which are unrecyclable through anything but TerraCycle.
  4. In some instances, it makes sense to fully replace plastic with a fiber or other “natural” alternative – as long as that material is sourced thoughtfully.
  5. If you continue using plastic, maximize the recycled content of any plastic materials used.
  6. Provide customers with education and resources to help them responsibly dispose of their used packaging.
Following these guidelines can help you eliminate the confusion and ensure your new packaging is genuinely better for the environment. We’ve discussed PE film recycling in-depth, so let’s talk more deeply about recycling plastic films.

Not All Plastic Films Are Equal: What Can and Can’t Be Recycled?

Which Plastic Films Can Be Recycled?

There are two films that are recyclable through programs that accept them.
 
HDPE #2 Plastic
High-Density Polyethylene
 
LDPE #4 Plastic
Low-Density Polyethylene
 
Here are common examples of these films - including blends of #2 and #4.
  • Grocery bags
  • Stretch film and pallet wrap
  • Poly mailers
  • Bread bags
  • Paper towel overwrap
  • Toilet tissue overwrap
  • Bubble wrap®
  • Bubble mailers
  • Ice bags
  • Air pillow
  • Dry cleaning bags
  • Cereal box liners
  • Produce bags
  • Newspaper sleeves
  • Furniture foam wrap
  • Ziploc or food storage bags
  • Pellet bags
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Which Plastic Films Cannot Be Recycled?

The following types of plastic films and packaging are generally not recyclable with PE thin film and should not be placed in thin film collection bins.
  • Plastic that tears like paper. Also known as polypropylene.
  • Stiff thick plastics such as plastic-based linen covers. Generally made from PVC.
  • Standup pouches and metalized bags like chip bags. Multi-layers of plastic and foil laminated together.
  • Saran wrap. PVDC.
  • Cellophane. Compostable, but generally landfilled.
  • High residue bags. Eeven if it’s made from PE, oily items like pet food leave a residue that means the material will never be clean or dry enough to recycle.
  • Plastic that makes a crinkly sound.
  • Packaging with a paper layer such as a paper/poly blend bubble mailing envelope.
  • Boat wrap. These contain multiple materials, including vinyl.
  • Biodegradable or compostable packaging. These are a completely different type of material and could contaminate an entire load of viable recyclable material.
Some materials, like metalized or layered films, maybe recyclable through programs like TerraCycle or G2 Revolution.
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Common Thin Film Recycling Contaminants

When you’re considering adding a material to the bin, watch out for these common contaminants that often find themselves mixed into batches of film.
  • Moisture
  • Hard plastics (recycled through a different system)
  • Cardboard
  • Strapping
  • Twine
  • Tape
  • Rubber bands
  • PCDV (Saran) films
  • PVC materials
  • Meat wrap
  • Oil or grease
  • Metal
  • Trash
  • Loose paper
  • Cheese wrappers
  • Pet food bags
  • Polypropylene (#5) films and bags
  • Multi-material or non-polyethylene items
  • Any items with food residue
If these get into a batch of recyclable materials, they can cause delays or cause a whole batch of materials to be thrown out.
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Do Shipping and Product Labels Need to Be Removed Before Recycling?

This is a great question and is becoming a more common consideration. It is relevant for:
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Poly Mailers & Bubble Mailers

Shipping Labels
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Poly Bags

Barcode Labels
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Thin-Film Packaging

Product Labels
Unfortunately, as with all topics in sustainability and recycling, the answer is complicated. The reclaimers most frequently purchasing and remanufacturing thin film packaging are fine with labels, including paper labels. Therefore, it is generally true that thin film with labels and stickers will be recycled and successfully manufactured into composite lumber. As the market shifts to push more and more packaging to be converted back into packaging, labels have to be scrutinized further. When manufacturing PE film back into a PE product, labels made with paper and other non-PE materials can create too much contamination, making the extruded recycled film ugly or unusable. Because of this, and the long-term desire for more PE to be manufactured back into PE, efforts are being made to be more stringent in eliminating non-PE packaging components.

How2Recycle and Shipping Labels

How2Recycle was created by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. It is a standardized labeling system to help people clearly understand recycling instructions. How2Recycle’s main goal is to help simplify recycling for consumers while increasing the effective recycling rate. They work with brands to evaluate their packaging and provide specific guidance for recyclability. Once they’ve assessed whether or not the packaging is recyclable, they issue a label to tell consumers how to take care of the packaging after use. How2Recycle Labels offer four important pieces of information. Scroll through to learn more about each.
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When a product has multiple components, H2R includes labels for each part, read left to right, to help consumers dispose of the entire product properly.
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For many years, How2Recycle designated PE film (whether or not it contained paper labels) as eligible for Store Drop Off. These days, you’ll see Amazon Bubble Mailers featuring a more stringent label: Remove Paper Label Before Recycling Store Drop Off. Despite Amazon Bubble Mailers carrying this How2Recycle label, we have found through our recent interactions with How2Recycle requests that this label is not being given to anyone but Amazon. We have not gotten clarity from How2Recycle as to why Amazon continues to carry this label on their bubble mailer while other packages and companies cannot. Their recent input to us includes the following:
  • Plastic PE film that won’t be labeled (like a retail shopping bag) can be given the Store Drop-Off label.
  • Plastic PE film that will be labeled and carries an APR (Association of Plastic Recyclers) approved label can be given the Store Drop-Off Label. APR-approved labels are either made with PE or a specially formatted blend of plastic and adhesive that APR has approved for recycling.
  • Plastic PE film that utilizes a shipping label that a brand can prove is easily removable by the customer (i.e., can be peeled off, not just cut off) can be given the “Remove Label Before Recycling” Store Drop Off H2R label.
  • Plastic PE film that utilizes a label that must be cut for it to be removed will receive a “Not Recyclable” designation.
These recent changes have some brands wondering how to navigate their labeling process while still pursuing How2Recycle certification.
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Trex, NexTrex and Labels

NexTrex is a recycling program created by Trex Company, Inc. Trex uses recycled plastic film to make decks. The organization aims to provide a market for plastic film packaging that keeps waste out of landfill and gives films a new life as downcycled durable materials.
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Trex, a company whose recycling approach represents 90%+ of the current thin-film recycling today, has no issues with paper labels because these do not create problems with their current process.

Trex is more concerned with high levels of non-PE plastic materials (PET and PP), grease and food residue, and metal contamination. This is because these contaminating materials may have higher melting points than PE, which leads the recycling process to result in unusable decking materials that do not meet their strength and aesthetic standards.

As such, Trex readily accepts thin film packaging even with paper labels on it. Packaging can be certified by Trex’s NexTrex program as having been tested and verified that the material can be successfully recycled into composite lumber. The NexTrex label is typically given to PE film that will carry paper labels but is often denied due to the presence of metal, high volumes of non-PE additions, or if the residue will likely be left behind in the packaging.

Which Guidelines Are Right?

We’ve said this many times in this article, but it's also true here: there’s no clear answer. For now, it seems that How2Recycle and APR are creating their goals and policies with a more circular process in mind. For example, recycling plastic back into plastic packaging. On the other hand, Trex, and other companies that downcycle plastic into something durable, have created an invaluable market. They purchase recycled plastic – and this market has made plastic recycling possible for a long time. Using recycled plastic, Trex and similar companies avoid drawing from virgin materials. Additionally, they are a recycler and remanufacturer and are the largest buyer of plastic film nationwide. We see a similar issue arise in the bottles and rigid plastics space. Historically, PET (i.e., soda bottles) have often been turned into rPET, a recycled polyester fiber used in activewear, outerwear, and other fabrics. Recently, advocates have called for legislation and policies to discourage the conversion of plastic bottles into polyester. Their stated goal is to have more bottles recycled into new bottles. From our point of view, taking a drastic move to prohibit or penalize downcycling is extremely counterproductive. Currently, markets favor purchasing materials to recycle into something durable like deck boards or rPET fabric. This market for recycled decking means that thin film PE can be successfully recycled and sold rather than becoming landfill waste or - much worse - litter. We believe policies prohibiting or discouraging this type of recycling would get in the way of this highly successful market and further reduce our already dismal recycling rates. This means that a lot less material would get recycled, especially in the short term. We’d like to see a world where various parties and forces can collaborate more to create policies that make sense. Ideally, the role of policy should be to reward packaging-to-packaging recycling without penalizing the downcycling of packaging into durable goods.

EcoEnclose's Stance

Given the current landscape and supply chain of thin film recycling, EcoEnclose’s stance is that messaging should always encourage store drop-off recycling of thin film packaging. Because removing paper and non-PE components benefits a small segment of end-users, we recommend that guidance encourage the removal of paper labels, even though the main buyer of this material today does not require this.
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Plastic Film Recycling “Certification”: How2Recycle and NexTrex

We’ve worked extensively with both of these organizations. We'll help you decide if certification is right for you and navigate the process.

Does Plastic Film Need to Be Certified as Recyclable?

In general and historically – no. The widely accepted industry approach has been to mark packaging with chasing arrows and a resin # to indicate the material used. The plastic could then be recycled through programs accepting those specific materials. For example, a water bottle with #1 PET can be recycled anywhere PET is accepted, which is most programs. A plastic bag that stretches when pulled and that is ideally labeled with a #4 or #2 (or both) can be recycled with thin film.

Issues With Recycling and the Plastic Industry

Recently, this has all come under fire for many valid and important reasons. First, the plastic industry’s use of chasing arrows is under intense scrutiny. Consumers and advocates have rightfully argued that the system was created to confuse consumers into thinking all plastics are recyclable regardless of the # inside the chasing arrows icon. This is not true. And this misconception has done a disservice to recycling, materials development, and environmental progress for a long time. Additionally, because recycling has historically been a bit of a wild west, companies have too often slapped recycling labels on things with no guidance, accuracy, or vetting.

Changing Regulations From the FTC and States

For instance, plastic-coated Kraft takeout containers, disposable coffee cups, and polypropylene berry containers have all been labeled “recyclable.” In reality, they’re not readily recyclable in that most consumers nationwide cannot place these items in their curbside recycling bin, nor do they have easy access to a source-separated stream for recycling. This has led the FTC and state legislation to push stricter guidelines for recyclability. Technically, there are still no requirements for recycling claims to be certified. However, in our new landscape, we strongly encourage brands to review, vet and qualify their recycling claims with more attention than ever before. Brands, especially those committed to sustainability, should understand the nuances of recyclability around their packaging materials and do everything they can to accurately present recyclability. Not only does this help the brand manage its environmental impact, but it also empowers customers to do the same. This helps build trust and a positive reputation for eco-conscious brands.

How to Qualify for How2Recycle Labeling

Brands must become members and have their packaging certified. Only Brand Members can request a label for their product packaging. To become a member, prospective brands must follow these steps and pay one of these teird rates.
  1. Get in touch with How2Recycle’s team
  2. Create an account on their Member Platform
  3. Review and sign their membership agreement
  4. Pay the One Time Setup fee and membership dues
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Once dues are paid, How2Recycle provides a customized recyclability assessment and labels for the brand’s packaging. These are accessible through the H2R Member Platform. Once certified, How2Recycle gives each member unlimited labels on their packaging.

EcoEnclose & How2Recycle

EcoEnclose is a non-brand member of How2Recycle. We can’t request a label or print H2R labels directly on our packaging. However, our poly bags, poly mailers, and bubble mailers are pre-qualified by H2R. Because of this, we can offer our customers pre-qualification letters to help with the certification process. Brands can then submit their labeling request along with our letter and information on any other packaging elements they plan to use such as shipping labels, stickers, or tape. After an assessment, if How2Recycle deems that the added packaging elements meet their standards, How2Recycle can grant the correct label directly to the brand to use on their packaging.
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How to Qualify for NexTrex Certification

Getting certified with NexTrex is a different process than pursuing How2Recycle certification. Since Trex is the end purchaser and uses the reclaimed materials in their manufacturing, they can set specific guidelines for what they will and won’t accept. Brands interested in testing their plastic film material with Trex should contact Stephanie Hicks (SHICKS@trex.com) for more information. They will then be asked to send samples in to have the materials analyzed and put through a test recycling process. After tests are complete, they grant certification to the requester. Since they accept paper labels in their collection process, they don’t need more information about the shipping label before certifying the packaging. For example, whether the label is APR certified.

EcoEnclose's NextTrex Certification

EcoEnclose’s poly packaging is NexTrex certified, including our Poly Mailers, Bubble Mailers, and Poly Bags. Brands can apply the NexTrex label without being individually certified.
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Not Using How2Recycle or NexTrex?

Without these third-party certifications, you can still do your homework to understand the recyclability and sourcing of your packaging. We recommend that you work with your supply chain partners to vet and fully comprehend the materials you use in your packaging. Then, print packaging with clear and accurate instructions telling customers how to reuse or recycle it.
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How Do EPR and Other Policies Affect Thin Film Use and Recycling?

Our Guide to EPR and Packaging Requirements reviews legislation and policies that affect thin film use and recycling.

Some of the most important points include:

Extended Producer Responsibility:

EPR legislation exists in four states and is pending in eleven more. EPR legislation aims to place more responsibility on companies for the management of their products and packaging. While these policies are not yet clearly defined, they’re important to consider when designing your packaging.

Plastic Bag Bans:

Bans on single-use plastic bags at checkout are becoming increasingly common, whether on statewide or citywide levels. As we mentioned before, these bans often affect public access to thin film recycling drop offs.

Other Material Bans:

Aside from plastic bags, other commonly banned materials include PVC, polystyrene (Styrofoam) and any packaging containing PFAs.

Retailer Requirements & Guidelines:

Most major retailers now have sustainability targets, and many are favoring environmentally conscious suppliers and vendors. This extends to packaging that is sustainably designed.
To keep up with these changing guidelines, we recommend that brands:
  • Ensure information about recyclability printed on the packaging is clear, accurate and informative
  • Eliminate commonly-banned materials like PVC, polystyrene, and PFAs
  • Minimize single-use packaging
  • Make your packaging readily recyclable
  • Increase recycled content in packaging
  • Move thoughtfully to reusable packaging where appropriate
  • Avoid vague or misleading labeling terms like “biodegradable”
  • Beware of using “compostable” language without full and proper certification
  • Stay current with PRO and EPR updates
  • Understand legislation and policy in your own area and areas you do business

The Recyclability of EcoEnclose Poly Mailers, Poly Bags, and Bubble Mailers

EcoEnclose’s thin film packaging has been designed to be store drop-off recyclable. Our poly mailers, bubble mailers, and poly bags contain no non-PE inputs outside standard fillers and have densities well under 1.0. In today’s thin-film recycling landscape, we confidently guide our brands and their consumers to recycle EcoEnclose poly packaging in store drop-off bins - with or without a label.
However, more and more brands ask us if and how they can get How2Recycle or another recyclability certification printed on their packaging. Here’s a closer look at the current recycling and certification status of some of our packaging. The landscape of recycling, particularly thin film, is evolving rapidly, and our practices, policies, and information will also evolve to keep up. Check back periodically for updates or contact us for a discussion and consultation. We continue to stay up-to-date on the latest policies and best practices in the space so you can get the most from your packaging.
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Organizations Working In the Plastic Film Recycling Space

These organizations work in the plastic and plastic film space and can be helpful resources for more information on your journey.
  • is a US-based international non-profit working to improve recycling for plastics.
  • is a research and technology firm giving brands and consumers guidance in the role of plastics in the circularity movement.
  • is a directory managed to help consumers find store drop-off programs that accept bags and films.
  • is a resource from Stina to help customers easily find products that use recycled materials.
  • is a tool from Stina to help businesses, institutions, and individuals find better ways to take action, develop policies, and promote a circular world.
  • is a database operated by Stina that connects scrap plastic suppliers to North America buyers.
  • is a grassroots organization based in New York and Connecticut. For over 25 years, they’ve been working to raise awareness about plastic use and help consumers and businesses do away with single-use plastic bags.
  • works to accelerate the transition to a circular economy by working with businesses, educational institutions, and individuals to address key issues.
  • is an environmental non-profit focused on sustainable material use, packaging, recycling, composting, and green chemistry.
  • is a non-profit dedicated to promoting clear and consistent labeling for materials to increase successful recycling.
  • is a membership-based organization that helps government agencies, businesses, and other parties collaborate to make packaging more sustainable.
  • is a manufacturer that recycles thin film plastics into durable, high-performance composite decking. They are a top buyer of recyclable thin films and manage their own certification program, NexTrex.
In addition to these organizations, EcoEnclose is here to help you navigate the complex world of plastic use and thin film recycling.

Next Steps for Your Plastic Film Recycling Journey

Whether you’re using thin film plastics and considering alternatives or starting from scratch and trying to figure out the best path for your packaging, we’re ready to connect you with the tools and resources you need. The EcoEnclose team can help you:
  • Evaluate materials in your current packaging
  • Identify areas to eliminate excess packaging
  • Compare and vet potential alternatives
  • Design for recyclability
  • Understand the nuances of thin film recycling
  • Create clear labels
  • Pursue certifications like How2Recycle or NexTrex

To get started, contact us, and a team member will reach out to help you take your next steps toward more sustainable packaging.

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