Dear Recyclebank: I’ve read on your website that I can drop off plastic bags at locations to be recycled, but can I recycle the small baggies that come in boxes? Can I recycle Ziploc bags? If either of these answers is yes, how can I do this? Thank you! –Tatiana C.
Dear Tatiana: In the recycling world, these types of plastic bags are lumped into a category called “plastic film”, which includes all sorts of flexible plastic bag materials, from grocery bags to dry cleaning film to the plastic that wraps your toilet paper. Since plastic film is typically not allowed in curbside recycling, many people assume that it’s not recyclable at all.
But that’s definitely not the case. Most of the plastic films we encounter every day are a form of #2 or #4 plastic called polyethylene, the same plastic that makes milk jugs and margarine tubs, and include things like:
- Grocery bags
- Produce bags
- Bread bags
- Food storage/sandwich bags (including, yes, those Ziploc bags)
- Dry cleaning bags
- Plastic packaging wraps for items like boxed appliances, bathroom tissue, diapers, etc.
- Insert bags for cereal and cracker boxes (as long as they don’t tear like paper)
- Bubble wrap and shipping pillows (deflate them before recycling)
All of these and more can be taken to drop-off locations that are easily found on PlasticFilmRecycling.org — but most likely there is a grocery store near you that accepts them. Just be sure that the plastic is empty (no crumbs or receipts), clean, and dry, and that any adhesive labels have been removed. And note that there are a few types of plastic film that shouldn’t go in your recycling bin or be dropped off at these plastic film collection points, such as:
- Frozen food bags
- Pre-washed salad mix bags
- Compostable or degradable plastic bags or films
- Cling wrap
We were curious about what happens to the plastic once it’s in the collection bins, so we turned to Steve Russell, vice president of the plastics department at American Chemistry Council, which supports PlasticFilmRecycling.org. He says that the stores that collect the plastic usually combine all the material they receive — the retailers smartly collect it from store locations by loading it into the empty delivery trucks that are heading back to the warehouses — and sell it in bulk to specialty recyclers. The recyclers have special machinery that can work with the plastic films to clean, dry, and shred the material, before it is melted into pellets and sold to manufacturers who use it to make new products and packages.
“Recycled plastic film is used to make a wide range of products, including crates, buckets, pallets, new packaging and bags, and durable composite lumber for backyard decks,” says Russell. He adds that plastic film is one of the fastest growing areas of recycling in the United States; there’s been a 79 percent increase in plastic film recycling since 2005.
If plastic film is such a valuable recycling material, why is it considered contamination in most curbside recycling programs? Russell explains: “Most community recycling programs were designed to collect rigid items for recycling, such as bottles, cans and containers. These systems were designed to separate paper from other types of recyclables, but they weren’t designed to handle film. As a result, misplaced film that winds up in curbside bins can cause problems, such as jamming equipment, resulting in delays or shutdowns.”
So make sure to keep your plastic bags and other film out of your curbside bins — this includes not using plastic bags to sort or contain your recyclables in the curbside bin. “Systems are designed to process loose items, such as bottles, cans and containers,” says Russell.
Meanwhile, curbside acceptance may be a while off: Most MRFs would need to undertake a very expensive overhaul in order to get new equipment that could process plastic bags. And while his organization can’t comment on whether curbside acceptance might change, Russell did say that programs are underway to increase awareness of how to recycle plastic film, including a labeling program that will show where the film can be recycled at participating stores.
Our suggestion? As you use plastic bags and wrappers, collect them all in one plastic bag; when full, load them into your car trunk (next to your reusable grocery bags, perhaps?). Chances are, you’ll see a collection point the next time you’re grocery shopping