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Because You Asked

Because You Asked: Can I Recycle Plastic Grocery Bags in the Recycling Bin?

By Recyclebank |

Plastic bags rarely have a place in your home recycling bin.

Dear Recyclebank: Can plastic grocery bags be recycled along with other recyclables? -S.

Dear S.:

The short answer is: No, plastic film cannot be recycled in most curbside recycling bins.

Plastic bags, as common as they are, are still not as widely recycled as other forms of plastic. According to the EPA, only 12 percent of the category of plastics that includes bags, sacks, and wraps ended up getting recycled in 2012. That’s compared to 31 percent of PET bottles and jars (water bottles or peanut jars, for example).

Typically made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE, number 2 plastic) or low-density polyethylene (LDPE, number 4 plastic), plastic bags and films are difficult to recycle because of their form. Plastic bags are lightweight and can easily get blown to places they don’t belong, and because they’re thin and flexible, they have a tendency to get snagged or tangled in machinery.

Most curbside recycling collection systems and processing equipment are designed to separate rigid materials like cans, bottles, or paper products.

When plastic bags get mixed in with other recyclables, they’re difficult to sort out, and often jam or damage the machines at materials recovery facilities and slow down the recycling process. Therefore, most communities do not accept plastic bags through their curbside recycling programs. Sadly, many end up either in landfills or as ugly tree ornaments, urban tumbleweed, or worse, get mistaken as food by marine animals.

While it’s best to reduce the amount of plastic bags you use by reusing them or remembering to bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store, you can still recycle plastic bags and keep them out of landfills or the environment. First, check to see if your community’s curbside recycling program accepts plastics bags. If they’re not accepted, make sure you don’t mix them in with other recyclables in your bin. Instead, take them to a drop-off recycling location. Most large grocery chains, home improvement stores, and retailers like Wal-Mart and Target provide collection bins, usually by the main entrance, for clean and dry plastic films such as:

  • Grocery/carryout bags
  • Newspaper delivery bags
  • Dry cleaning wraps
  • Bread and produce bags
  • Zipper food storage bags
  • Plastic cereal box liners
  • Case wrap/shipping packaging (often found around diapers, snacks, water bottles, and paper towels)

Once these plastic bags and wraps are collected and shipped to the proper recycling facilities, they are turned into backyard decking, fences, playground equipment, pipes, pallets, crates, and even new plastic bags.

Plastics Make It Possible
American Chemical Society

This month, do some digging and see how you can recycle plastic bags in your community. In the comments below, let us know what you find and if you’ll be recycling your plastic bags!

Share with Your Friends & Family
  • Lucy A. 1 month ago
    I know they're not the best but I recycle them to become my garbage bag.
  • lucia rodriguez p. 1 month ago
  • Philip C. 1 month ago
    Does anyone recycle the plastic zip lock bags? I hate throwing them away. I try using them to wrap old food to cover smells in the garbage. I reuse them occasionally. Can I include them with the grocery bags that I drop off at the store recycling bin, if they are cleaned?
  • lisa t. 6 months ago
    We have the "tax" on bags where we live (5 cents, I think). I volunteer at a food bank, and we have to buy the bags to give away the food in. We get some re-donated from the supermarket--the ones that people bring in to recycle. It's a win-win!
  • Barbara K. 10 months ago
    Barbara K.
    Almost all major grocery stores & pharmacies have large white barrel type containers containing a sign that will say "bring your plastic shopping bags back & recycle here". I have yet to walk into a grocer's chain store (or pharmacy) that does not have 1 of these containers for collection of any store used plastic bag w/handles. If you use the bags for curbside trash, they either tear, develop holes (allowing the trash to spread over your entire street). These bags are recycled & are not strong enough (or large enough to be used as a trash holder. They are so small and trucks/workers miss picking them up at all. A good wind, snow, or heavy rain these bags end up in the area for parking cars or gutters. Even a mischievous teenage will sometimes kick the small bag under the wheels of a car & the bag ends up being broken & trash spread over the street. This will allow 1 of 2 things to happen. The bags & trash end up washing down onto our sewer grate &both the torn bags & trash will either wash down into our sewer or the mess will create a dam-like effect blocking any excess water to drain into our sewer system overflowing onto the sidewalk. In wet, cold weather this overflow of water can end up freezing creating another hazard for citizens walking the sidewalks.
    • Kathleen S. 1 month ago
      The fact that they aren't big enough for use as curbside bags doesn't mean those of us who have a trash cart our waste hauler uses can't put trash in store bags into the trash cart. If I just threw everything loose into the cart at least a few small things would end up on the lawn.
      I am still re-using, thank you very much.
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