Proposing a New Leadership Standard for Trash Bags & Can Liners

Update: The public comment period closed on January 29, 2023. Green Seal is now reviewing stakeholder input.

Green Seal is proposing a certification standard for trash bags and can liners to recognize products that use less virgin plastic while maintaining top performance.

This standard introduces the new concept of plastic efficiency, which prioritizes the result – curbing virgin plastic use – over the method used to achieve it. While traditionally trash bags are deemed environmentally preferable for incorporating post-consumer recycled (PCR) content, this new model opens a second pathway to recognize products that use innovative technology to produce thinner liners that maintain tear and puncture resistance.

A High-Impact Single-Use Product 

As single-use plastic products, trash bags and can liners have significant environmental impacts. American households consume more than a billion trash bags each year, sending them on to landfills where they turn into microplastics that further pollute the environment. An estimated 79% of all plastic products eventually reach the ocean, harming marine life and emitting the potent greenhouse gas methane when they degrade 

Trash bags and can liners have significant carbon pollution impacts on the front end too – they generally are made of virgin plastics that are produced using considerable amounts of energy and associated carbon emissions. In fact, over 95% of the carbon footprint of plastics comes from its production.

Extracting and manufacturing resources for plastic production can also produce harmful chemicals that have human health impacts, particularly on industry workers and neighboring communities. These chemicals have been associated with a variety of negative health outcomes, including impacts on development, reproduction, and the nervous system. 

Reducing Impacts by Using Less Virgin Plastic 

Currently, there are no alternatives that perform as well as plastic trash bags and can liners for strength, odor control, and sanitation. While non-conventional plastics such as bio-based, biodegradable, or compostable plastics are marketed as sustainable alternatives, they currently are not effective solutions due to a lack of recycling and composting infrastructure, improper consumer use and, in the case of bio-based plastics, land use and emissions concerns associated with growing crops to produce the materials.

However, there is a more sustainable solution: plastic trash bags can be made with less virgin plastic without sacrificing performance. 

Incorporating post-consumer recycled (PCR) content into a trash bag reduces plastic pollution by giving a second life to used plastic films that would otherwise end up in landfills or the ocean. It also reduces the carbon impact of trash bags by eliminating the greenhouse gas emissions associated with extracting and manufacturing new virgin material and avoids emissions from incinerating plastic waste.

Several state and federal purchasing policies require trash bags to contain 10% PCR content, and demand for PCR content in plastic products and in packaging is growing among states, industry, and advocacy organizations.

However, PCR content alone may not be an effective way to identify products that reduce virgin plastic use. A Green Seal analysis of products in the marketplace found that bags that feature PCR content sometimes still incorporate the same amount of virgin plastic as their PCR-free competitors. Additionally, challenges with recycling plastic films can make sourcing high-quality PCR content difficult for manufacturers: plastic films are not typically collected in curbside collection programs and can damage recycling equipment at traditional recycling facilities. Some can liner types, such as those made from HDPE resins below 0.4 mil, also struggle to incorporate any PCR content without compromising performance.

Another way for manufacturers to reduce the amount of virgin plastic in trash bags is through using technological advancements to produce liners that are thinner but maintain uncompromising performance. In a Green Seal analysis, thin liners produced fewer greenhouse gas emissions than thicker liners, even in some cases where thicker liners incorporated PCR content. Manufacturers can also take advantage of mineral additives to reduce their use of virgin plastic and provide more strength to the bag.

Plastic Efficiency: A New Approach to Environmental Leadership 

Through an extensive market analysis, Green Seal has developed a program to recognize environmental leadership in trash bags and can liners based on plastic efficiency: reducing virgin plastic use to the minimum amount required to maintain top performance for the product’s gallon size.

This approach opens a pathway to recognize products that use leadership levels of recycled content, but also those that use innovative technologies to produce thinner liners that still maintain a trash bag’s important functional attributes of tear and puncture resistance. The result is a clear designation for buyers that a bag is in the top 30% in its size category for the lowest amount of virgin plastic in the liner, and thus the least amount of greenhouse gas emissions and plastic waste. 

The draft standard includes: 

  • Verifying product functional performance through tests for puncture and tear resistance
  • Requiring a minimum amount of 10% verified post-consumer recycled content for bags above 0.7 mil in thickness
  • Prohibiting the addition of hazardous ingredients such as carcinogens, heavy metals, phthalates, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and fragrances that can further pollute the recycled plastic supply chain or pose harm to users
  • Requiring source reduced, recyclable, or post-consumer content in packaging materials

The draft standard and a supplemental background report are available here.

A Collaborative Approach to Standard Development 

Green Seal’s standard development process includes input from a Working Group made up of leading companies, nonprofit organizations, and independent subject matter experts. Working Group members provide technical and market feedback throughout the standard development process, program implementation, and evolution to ensure the standard is a meaningful tool for manufacturers and consumers.

Seeking Feedback 

Green Seal welcomes public input on the draft standard. The public comment period is open until January 29, 2023. Review the draft standard or submit comments here

Green Seal’s reputation for credibility and market impact rests on an open and transparent process for developing and revising our science-based standards. All standard development and major standard revisions include extensive stakeholder outreach and opportunities for public input. Green Seal will publish all formally submitted comments, as well as a response to each substantive issue identified by commenters.

Brittany Maule

Brittany Maule is the Senior Manager of Products and Standards at Green Seal.