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Are paper bags recyclable?

By Annie Bell Muzaurieta |
When you go back-to-school clothes shopping, give gifts, or (it happens!) forget your reusable bags, what do you do with those paper bags? Learn more about what’s recyclable, what’s compostable, and what to do with paper bags that are neither.
UPDATED: 09/06/11 | Originally Published: 01/20/10

As a responsible consumer you've done your research and determined that, of course, reusable canvas bags are best — but inevitably you forget to bring your bags one day and you're faced with the question: Paper or plastic? Or maybe, you're out clothes shopping, and never thought about the reusable bag you always use for your groceries. If your reusable bag isn't available and you've opted for a paper bag, then what?

Gift Bags and Shopping Bags

Gift bags are often not recyclable because of all their adornments, and because they are usually made from a combination of paper and plastic (that's why they're so sturdy!), but they're very convenient.

There are tons of ways to make gift bags environmentally-friendly. The best solution? Consider investing in cloth gift bags (super reusable), or using plain brown craft paper bags (super recyclable) instead of purchasing new paper gift bags. If you do purchase new bags, check for bags made of recycled and recyclable materials — forgo glitters, furs, noise makers, ribbons, etc — and go into the purchase with an eye for reuse. Buy in solid colors or gender- and event-neutral patterns that insure easy reuse.

The bags you get from your mall purchases are similar: If they have decorations or cloth or ribbon handles, they're not so easy to just toss in your paper recycling. If you're able to remove the non-recyclable parts easily, which is more often the case with shopping bags than gift bags, check with your local government or at to see if they accept paper bags. When recycling isn't an option, reuse is!

Here are a few great ways to reuse, reuse, and reuse again:

  • Regift: If the bag is still in good shape, use it the next time you need to give someone a gift. No one minds when it's in good shape and good for the environment!

  • Cover Books: Instead of covering hardcover textbooks with brown paper bags, use colorful gift bags — you might even be able to position the handles from the gift bags so they act as handles for the book.

  • Scrapbook: Scrapbooks are built on colorful patterns backing pictures. Cut up used gift bags and use them for your next scrapbooking project.

  • Craft: Pull out the breaking bags and make bookmarks, ornaments, gift bows, and collages. The patterns are great for colorful crafts.

  • Store: A lot of bags are still sturdy even after they're clearly a bit beat up. Fill them with knick knacks, craft supplies, and seasonal items, and put them on a shelf or in a closet to retrieve later.

Brown Paper Bags For Groceries and Lunches

The EPA tells us that paper grocery bags, and their "mini-me," the paper lunch bag, are recyclable. Like cardboard pizza boxes, they shouldn't be contaminated with food because a grease spot or a spilled liquid will render the bag unrecyclable.

According to the EPA, paper accounts for more than a third of all recyclables collected in the US, by weight. Nearly 44 million tons of paper and paperboard were recovered in 2006 — a recycling rate of over 50 percent.

Paper bags can already contain recycled material, according to the EPA, and almost 37% of the fiber used to make new paper products in the US came from recycled sources in 2007. Most paper bags can be placed in mixed paper recycling, but your city's website can advise you on how best to recycle them.

Unlike glass, paper cannot be recycled endlessly. Every time paper is recycled the fiber gets shorter, according to the EPA, and after being recycled five to seven times, the fibers can no longer be bonded into new paper.

If the bags are minimally inked, Treehugger suggests composting the bags to convert the paper into a rich soil nutrient. Remember, recycling paper bags is not without issue. Harsh chemicals and water are required to re-pulp the paper before it's cleaned, screened and reused.

And don't forget to try to bring those reusable bags to the store. These string bags are compact and can hide out in your purse or computer bag so you can't forget them. As for your lunch, go retro with a lunch box, or modern with a bento box.

Have any suggestions for making the most of your paper bags? Share them by commenting below.

Share with Your Friends & Family
  • Octavain D. 5 years ago
    This website is the best!
    WOW! I love it, but I got one Q? Why don't I get points for my sticker I put on my recycling bin?
  • lynlyn r. 5 years ago
    i use paper creating things.for decorations for home just like flower vases & basket ..swan,its just a nice feeling when you see how your day is going through when you appreciate every things that you did,
  • John R. 5 years ago
    Mary R.
    When frying fish, or any deep fried food, cut open a brown grocery bag, place it on a tray and place your fired food on it. It absorbs the grease and you save by not using paper towels. My Mom did this many years ago, and I do the same.
  • Kathey C. 5 years ago
    Wonderful suggestion about using gift bags in scrapbook projects! I never thought of that!
  • Robert I. 5 years ago
    My family makes all the wrapping paper we use each year from brown paper bags. folks love getting original artwork wrapping paper, sometimes more than what's wrapped in the paper1
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