Plastic wrap is a tough one. Also known as “cling wrap” or “plastic film,” it presents maybe the toughest of all zero-waste conundrums.
Only those who are trying to avoid it can fully appreciate how everywhere it is. Whole aisles of meats, entire walls of cheeses, all sealed off from the world in tidy little packets! Even organic produce is safely- if ironically- secured with it to little biodegradable trays! It’s hard to imagine how magical this stuff must have seemed to consumers way back in the 1940s when it was first marketed, back when glass, metal and paper were the primary materials for storing food, and flies laying eggs on the buffet table was a subject of much debate.
Fresh! Easy! Lightweight! Cheap! I suppose it makes sense that the supermarket has a longstanding love affair with clean, clear, oh-so-sanitary plastic wrap. Even before the current pandemic severely limited my shopping/food packaging choices, the stuff just kept popping up in my house like a deranged Whack-a-Mole. Surprise!
Friend: I brought you some lovely cheese, Eve!
Also Me: I mean, thank you it’s lovely!
Me to myself: CRAP. Guess I’ll put this next to the plastic wrap I found in the freezer and the plastic wrap a friend brought me leftovers in, and the plastic wrap that fell out of the freaking sky on my head.
Note to self: Gotta find out what is the DEAL with plastic wrap.
Since our Year of No Garbage began, whenever plastic food wrap has reared its ugly head in my kitchen, I have carefully washed it in the sink, the same way I do tin foil: flattening it against the sink bottom and wiping with my dish sponge in one-directional strokes. I have draped it delicately over the dishes in the drainer to dry. At some point, though, I began thinking to myself: how is this thin, flexible plastic any different than, say, the thin flexible plastic of supermarket bags? It felt the same. It has the same industry terminology: “plastic film.” If food wrap is the same plastic as supermarket bags, wouldn’t it stand to reason that you could- after cleaning and drying it- recycle it in the plastic bag recycling bin at the supermarket?
So I googled it. When one googles “is plastic wrap recyclable?” the resounding answer one invariably gets is: NO NO NO DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT NO.
But why? Most online sources give no reason at all, but a few say it’s because plastic food wraps are made of #3 plastic: PVC or PVdC (polyvinyl chloride or polyvinylidene chloride).
The thing is, this is not entirely true. When you dig a little deeper you find that, due to a growing awareness of the toxicity of chlorine in PVC and PVdC many plastic wrap films are no longer made with these materials, notably including Saran Premium Wrap, which changed its formula in 2004.
So what are they made of? Well, when you get an actual person on the phone at these companies, you find out that two of the leading food wraps, Glad Clingwrap and Saran Premium Wrap, are currently both made with… polyethylene.
And because I am now a certified Recycling Nerd Extraordinaire, this is when I start to get excited. Because polyethylene, you may recall, is exactly what makes up all those plastic film products that are suitable for recycling into outdoor decking by the good people at Trex. Dry cleaning bags, bread bags, plastic overwrap from toilet paper and paper towel, produce bags, Ziploc bags, bubble wrap… as I wrote about back in January, all of these things are made with polyethylene (plastics #2 and #4) and can all go into the plastic film recycling bin at the supermarket.
Could it be that Saran Wrap and Glad Wrap could go in that recycling bin too?
I sent an email to my friend Stephanie Hicks at Trex to confirm my hypothesis. I was disappointed to get her response: “Hi Eve… Glad Wrap and Saran Wrap are not plastic films that Trex accepts. It’s my understanding that they (sic) chemical do not behave the same as typical PE film. Please do not include.” This struck me as odd, because both of the company representatives I spoke with confirmed that their plastic wraps were 100% polyethylene- I mean, there are no other chemicals hiding in there. So what made this polyethylene film different than any than other polyethylene films?
When I pressed for more info from Stephanie at Trex this is what I got: “Saran wrap is PE (polyethylene) but it’s a modified form of PE and performs different that (sic) traditional PE. It does not melt like traditional PE.”
Wait- was that true? More phone calls.
This time I spoke to Public Affairs representative at SC Johnson, the makers of Saran Wrap. That’s when I got a response that blew my recycling mind. Here’s a quote from the official statement they sent me:
We can confirm that clean and dry Saran Wrap® is recyclable at most major US retailers similar to Ziploc® bags by dropping off in the bins located in stores that collect plastic bags and films.
On the phone, Megan, a customer service representative at Glad Products told me the same thing about their Glad Wrap: “It’s 100 % recyclable.”
Wow! Great news! But hold on. One thing I’ve been learning this year is to be more skeptical about things companies say. What does “recyclable” really mean, anyway? The term “recyclable” is meaningless if no facilities actually exist to accept it, right?
“Dear Loyal Consumer: We are delighted to inform you that our product is 100 %, guaranteed, fully recyclable. On Pluto. Thanks for your inquiry!”
Was I just back to square one? After all, even though the manufacturers say their product fits the parameters like those used at Trex, remember Trex said: Glad Wrap and Saran Wrap are not plastic films that Trex accepts.
But why? I was starting to sound like an annoying four year old, yet I still couldn’t help but wonder. Is it just because recyclers are afraid customers won’t wash and dry the stuff properly? Or are they afraid customers will put in non-polyethylene films that look identical, but are chemically very different? (Stretch-Tite, for example, is still made with PVC.) And if so, would this contaminate the recycling process? And how?
At this point I’d just like to pause and say: it should not be this hard. It should not be hard to know what chemicals are being used in the packaging of our foods, and it should not be hard to recycle our food packaging. I can’t say it enough: Trex and other polyethylene recyclers are doing a wonderful, fantastic thing by turning plastics that were heretofore unrecyclable into new products. They are to be deeply commended and I mean that.
But. Why did I feel like I was getting the runaround?
Were they just hoping I’d give up and go away? Because if so, they were truly not understanding the level of Lady Macbeth obsessiveness I’m operating on.
So I gave Trex one last try, emailing Stephanie again, asking: What is the modification that makes 100% polyethylene plastic food wraps unrecyclable with other 100% polyethylene plastic films? And at last I was able to get a more specific answer:
It is true that saran wrap plastic films are 100% PE, but are XPE – cross linked polyethylene. Trex process does not handle well XPE as it doesn’t move through the process of melting and material flow the way that non XPE does. Our whole business, machinery, and technology are designed to use a consistent or homogenized material source and XPE causes major chemical shifts.
Apparently, XPE can gunk up the whole recycling process, creating clogs in the line and irregularities in the new product.
After all this rigamarole with dueling representatives I kind of felt like it was time to get an outside viewpoint on the recyclability of plastic wrap. So I had a phone call with a lovely woman named Emily Tipaldo, at MORE Recycling, a consulting company that specializes in facilitating recycling and sustainability.
According to Emily the other concerns I had suspected are, all by themselves, enough to put the kibosh on the whole endeavor, even before you get to the issue of the polyethylene being cross-linked. “(Many recyclers are) probably worried about contamination,” she explained. “Most people probably won’t take the time to wash and dry the film properly.” Which can not only contaminate the recycling, but also invite pests.
Add to that the fact that, while Saran Wrap and Glad are polyethylene, others are not.
“It’s confusing enough for people trying to recycle right,” she said, without people trying to keep track of whether the plastic came from Saran, Glad or Stretch-Tite. And once the plastic is out of the box, they’re indistinguishable: there’s no way to determine whether a food wrap is PVC or HDPE just by look or feel.
And, most importantly, she confirmed once and for all: “XPE is not currently compatible with the PE recycling stream.”
So just like in The Mysterious Case of the Meat Plastic Vacuum Pouches, I had at last gotten to the bottom of a difficult recycling question, only to find a not very satisfying answer: yes… but really no. Yes, some manufacturers are saying plastic food wraps are “recyclable,” but are they really? In reality, pretty much no one wants to recycle them, because it just too hard: too complicated, too arduous for consumers, too messy, too confusing. The industry is simply not set up to do this.
So what’s the takeaway? I’d say more pressure needs to be put on corporations to take responsibility for what happens to their packaging after it is purchased by the consumer. I was delighted to find a company like MORE Recycling whose mission is in part to help companies make that transition from a linear to a circular economy. We need much, much more of this.
Here’s a crazy idea: how about all companies adopt a common set of packaging options that is guaranteed to be recyclable or compostable in all fifty states. Anything falling outside these parameters shouldn’t be allowed to be made or sold. We need a standardized system that is clear, consistent and easy to use— by everyone.
Let’s work on that.
In the meantime, the easiest, most sensible thing we can do as consumers is to avoid food-wrapping plastic films. Don’t buy them for your kitchen— instead use beeswax wrap or glass Tupperware such as Pyrex— and as much as possible try not to buy products that come wrapped in them. Until we can go back to bringing our own containers to the store for cheese and meat, that’s the best we can do.
Even though it’s not a very satisfying answer, I’m glad now to have the real story about plastic wrap… cross-linking warts, and all. Because as long as we are willing to take the word of industry who tries to brush us off with: you wouldn’t understand it, lady, because: science, we can’t effectively argue for change.
And change is clearly what needs to come next.