Healthy Building Network recently published a new report on the use of recycled polyethylene in building products.

In Summary: Polyethylene is the world’s most common plastic.  One third of the polyethylene bottles and bags collected from the waste stream become new building materials. Unfortunately, while the recycling industry is primed to expand collection and reprocessing of polyethylene, the low price of virgin polyethylene has encouraged manufacturers to move away from incorporating recycled content into their products.

What you can do:

  • Affordable housing providers can help to counter these pressures by providing dedicated collection bins for clean polyethylene plastics.

  • Where polyethylene products are being considered in a building project, prioritize those with the highest post-consumer content.

  • Consider using informational signs, online forums, and newsletters to encourage residents to:

  • Avoid purchasing polyethylene bottles and bags that are labeled as biodegradable;

  • Separate plastic film (like bags) from other recycled materials and take them to a local drop-off centers, easily found through an online database (

  • Use shopping bags that can be reused many times. California’s planned single use bag law, for example, requires that bags are designed for being used at least 125 times.

This is Why: Polyethylene is the world’s most common plastic.  In its virgin state, three types of polyethylene are used extensively in packaging like plastic shopping bags and beverage containers. Over the course of its use as packaging, polyethylene can become contaminated - either because additives were compounded into the plastic in hopes that it would eventually biodegrade, or because the plastic absorbed some of the contents stored within it, for example, laundry detergent.

Once recycled, post-consumer polyethylene can be reprocessed into many types of building products, bringing those contaminants with it.  Happily, processors are developing testing protocols and specifications for polyethylene in order to screen out these residual contaminants.  Drainage pipes, plastic lumber, impact resistant walls, table tops, are all examples of building products made with polyethylene, potentially from post-consumer sources.  

Read a short summary of the report here.
Read the full report here.