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Proper Green: Can you recycle or reuse plastic bags?

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Even with all our reusable bags, we all still wind up with plastic bags. Here are some tips on recycling and reusing plastic bags.
Dear Proper Green,

I try to remember my reusable bags, but nobody’s perfect. Sometimes I forget them, and then I have to use the bags the store provides. Can I make up for my forgetfulness by recycling the plastic bags?

-Emma, SC

Dear Emma,

Surprisingly enough, the answer is yes — with a lot of caveats! Technically, plastic bags can be recycled. That doesn’t mean you can just throw them in the bin with the bottles and milk jugs, though! Why not? It’s actually because plastic bags cause all kinds of problems at the Material Recovery Facility [MRF], which is where all of your curbside recyclables end up. Plastic bags are designed to hold things, and they stay true to their purpose during the recycling process, often trapping other material along the way. If the trapped material is something like food, it could contaminate the other recyclable materials. Worse, the bag could hide something dangerous to workers, like used medical supplies or sharp objects. Since bags are so flimsy, they also cause a headache for automatic sorting machines. They can get caught in the wheels and belts of the machinery and stop the line, and then they have to be removed by hand!

What you can do is check with your hauler or municipality to find out if you can recycle plastic bags in your recycling bin, and if not, check out your local grocery store. Many grocery stores or department stores are legally required to collect plastic bags for recycling — since the bags are packaged together, they can be sent straight to facilities that can handle the bags, and the material can be reused. Before you recycle the bags, though, consider reusing them! Here are a few ideas, beyond the good old standby of using them to line the wastebasket in the bathroom:

Seal up your paint cans: Rather than dispose of your leftover paint, keep it for touch-ups. Before you close the can up, though, slip the plastic bag over the opening. Once you hammer down the lid, the bag will make a seal to keep air, dirt, and dried paint flecks out of the liquid.

Clean up after the pets: If you walk a dog or scoop a litter box, save the plastic bags to hold the mess, instead of buying a roll of new plastic bags.

Protect your plants from frost: Don’t let that late freeze zap your flowers. Wrap the plastic bag securely over the plant before you go to bed.

Stuff a shipping box: Instead of reaching for the bubble wrap, stuff the space around your fragile items with the plastic bags.

Take out the recycling: This seems simple, but I take out my bottles and cans much more often than I seal a paint can, protect a plant, or ship something fragile. I don’t want to take 15 trips to the recycling bin, so I keep a couple of plastic bags around to store my recyclables instead of using a new trash bag. Then, it’s a cinch to run out, dump the bottles into the bin, and bring back the bag to reuse again!

If you don’t want to worry about reusing or recycling them, 4 Ways to Form Green Habits might help you remember your reusable bags more often!

Do you have any tips on recycling or reusing your plastic bags? Share them in the comments below!
About Proper Green

Proper Green is Recyclebank's green advice column. From promoting good manners in a green world (because ideas about what constitutes proper behavior and the environment are still evolving) to providing easy ways to make your every day more sustainable, Proper Green aims to help smooth the way with answers to questions that are important to you!

Do you have a question for Proper Green? Send inquiries to Please note: Questions may be edited for clarity and length.

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Proper Green
Proper Green

Proper Green is Recyclebank's green advice column. From promoting good manners in a green world (because ideas about what constitutes proper behavior and... more

  • William L. 2 years ago
    I found a use for the plastic pharmacy prescription bags that I get so many of. Mine have the zipper tops on them so I just cut that off. I use them for pooper scooper bags. They are the perfect size for our two little pooches.
  • Josephine A. 3 years ago
    trash bags
  • Shalee R. 4 years ago
    love using it for shipping
  • Tracy P. 4 years ago
    I use them to take my lunch to work and also as trash bags in smaller trash cans and to pick up after my 3 dogs when we go camping
  • Kathleen M. 4 years ago
    I can make plarn and it is sooooooooooo awesome
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