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All you need to know about plastic bag recycling

If you know your recycling, you probably already know that most communities don’t accept plastic bags in their curbside bins. And if you recycle like a pro, you may know that plastic bag recycling is a thing you can do at most local grocery stores, or superstores like Target or Walmart.

But here’s where it gets confusing. Does that mean just the bags from that store? Or can you recycle more? Most drop-off bag collections accept polyethylene film. This includes high-density polyethylene (HDPE or #2 plastic) and low-density polyethylene (#4 plastic or LDPE). It’s great if your bags have markings on them, but since most do not, it’s good to know some general guidelines.

Some plastics that can go into the store drop-off bins are:

  • plastic shopping bags (from any store — remove receipts, etc.)
  • food packaging (Ziploc-type bags)
  • bread bags
  • plastic liners from cereal boxes (do not include if they tear like paper)
  • produce bags
  • dry cleaning bags (remove staples, receipts, hangars)
  • plastic newspaper wrapping
  • product wrapping (such as covers a case of water bottles, etc.)
  • bubble wrap and air pillows (popped)
  • plastic shipping envelopes (remove labeling)

ALL materials should be clean and dry. Not just a quick rinse — if your bags are not completely clean of food residue, they will contaminate the entire batch.

Other plastics need to go into the trash. These include:

  • frozen food bags
  • cereal box liners that tear like paper
  • biodegradable bags
  • pre-washed salad bags
  • candy bar wrappers
  • chip bags
  • six-pack rings

Why can’t I put bags in my bin?

Although a small handful of communities accept plastic in curbside bins, the vast majority do not. That’s because most facilities don’t have the personnel and equipment they would need to process them.

Rigid plastics, like gallon milk containers, are easily processed by machine. They are carried by conveyor belts and machine sorted. But throwing plastic bags into the mix wreaks havoc on these machines. The bags bend easily and get snagged in belts. They jam machinery and need to be cleared by hand.

The extra labor required to handle these problems and higher amount of equipment downtime makes your recycling program less profitable. That means that your government has less to spend on other programs.

The bottom line

You can recycle plastic bags and packaging, but don’t put them in your home recycling bin! You’ll need to drop them off at your local grocery store. Check the lists above for guidelines on what is accepted and check with your drop-off location if you have any questions. Alternatively, if your city is a member of the Recycle Coach Network, download our app and we’ll hook you up with local information, including more tips and tricks for plastic bag recycling.

71 Comments

  1. Pam

    May 29, 2021 at 12:07 am

    You may want to re-word this article. The first list is talking about items that can’t go in YOUR residential bin, but in the OTHER type of bin. At first glance, and when skimming, it makes it seem like they can go into your residential bin, due to the beginning of it: “Some plastics that can go into the bin are:”.

    Reply
    • April

      May 31, 2021 at 12:45 pm

      Thank you for pointing this out! I’ve reworded that sentence to make it clearer. The list of bullet pointed items ONLY refers to plastics that can go in the type of drop-off bins found at grocery stores and other big box stores, not home recycling bins.

      Reply
  2. Martha

    June 17, 2021 at 11:43 am

    I have a HUGE volume of plastic bags/film collected from deliveries over the pandemic—Much more than would fit in a store’s skinny collection box. Is there a place in Chicago that accepts a bulk return of compressed plastic bags and film?

    Reply
    • April

      June 17, 2021 at 12:32 pm

      I think many of us are in that same situation from the increase in online deliveries in the last year! To make matters worse, since the pandemic started, many drop-off boxes at retailers have halted collections in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19. Since municipalities do not accept plastic bags in their recycling programs, unfortunately we will all have to hold tight and keep storing our bags until they are accepted again. You can check by zip code which drop-off locations are available near you, but you might want to call ahead to see if they are now accepting bags again. https://www.plasticfilmrecycling.org/recycling-bags-and-wraps/find-drop-off-location/

      Reply
  3. Deanna Cheatham

    June 21, 2021 at 7:09 am

    The lists are very helpful.
    I am not sure about a “shipping envelope” that is a little thicker plastic with a gray lining in which meds are shipped. Would this be recyclable?
    Thanks,
    Deanna

    Reply
    • April

      June 22, 2021 at 10:07 am

      I’m glad the lists are coming in handy! https://www.plasticfilmrecycling.org/ lists plastic shipping envelopes as a material you can drop-off for recycling at one of their locations. Just make sure this type of plastic does not go in your curbside bin.

      Reply
    • Francie

      November 29, 2021 at 12:31 am

      It’s recyclable as long as the entire bag is plastic (some are paper on the outside with a bubble plastic lining, you can’t recycle those). NOTE: you need to cut off any paper label that’s affixed to the outside of the bag.

      Reply
  4. Esther Pardue

    June 23, 2021 at 7:11 pm

    I am glad to have the lists and will copy to the appropriate committee here at Givens Estates. I do have a question: what about plastic bags with paper labels glued on? I get these from the grocery bakery department, for example.

    Reply
    • April

      June 24, 2021 at 7:28 am

      Great question! If the label is paper, it needs to be removed before placing it in a drop-off location. If you can’t peel it off, then you can cut it off to remove. Paper cannot be mixed in.

      Reply
  5. Glenn

    June 26, 2021 at 9:40 am

    This is an excellent article. I’ve had questions about which types of plastic bags can go into store collection bins for quite a while now, and the article has for the most part cleared that up for me. One thing that I am a little confused about are the frozen food bags. I have bags from things like frozen corn that are completely clean and dry, end it would seem that these would be recyclable. Are these types of bags made of a different type of plastic that gives the reason for exclusion?

    Reply
    • April

      June 28, 2021 at 7:59 am

      These types of frozen food bags have an extra polymer layer to keep food fresh. This makes them unsuitable for recycling with other plastic film and plastic bags at the retail drop-offs. Make sure to always check with your local municipality about what they accept.

      Reply
  6. LESLIE FUQUA

    June 27, 2021 at 4:53 pm

    Can you explain more fully what you mean when you say ‘Frozen food bags’? You say these are not recyclable, but supposedly food packaging (zip-lock type bags) are recyclable in the store container. I get a lot of frozen fish, like salmon and tuna. They come vacuum packed and in a zip-lock type bag. I’m wondering if the zip-lock type outer frozen food bag is recyclable in store containers. I’m assuming that the vacuumed packing is not recyclable.

    Reply
    • April

      June 28, 2021 at 8:21 am

      Plastics can get confusing because there are so many types and so many rules. In addition to that, different recycling programs accept different items based on their capabilities. Always check your local program for their specific requirements. The retail drop-off programs generally accept #2 and #4 bags and film.

      Reply
    • Aurora

      February 9, 2022 at 10:59 pm

      I’ve researched this a lot. Generally, the bags that have foods that are frozen (like peas, corn, etc) cannot recycle because of that extra polymer. Same for “ready-to-eat” foods, like salad you don’t have to wash. I’m pretty sure the frozen fish that comes in zip-lock bags is NOT recyclable. Honestly, if it’s unclear, it’s probably best to toss the bag in the garbage rather than the recycling. Too much “wish-cycling” contaminates the load of actual recyclable materials. I’ve decided to err on the side of caution and avoid any potential contamination. Hope that helps. even though your question was a long while ago.

      Reply
      • April

        February 11, 2022 at 12:54 pm

        Well put! Thank you!!

        Reply
  7. R

    July 4, 2021 at 6:36 pm

    Thank you for this blog. Excellent. What about boxes of wine? I recycle the plastic bladder at Target AFTER I cut out and throw away the tap and drain any wine residue. Is this okay?

    Reply
    • April

      July 7, 2021 at 10:48 am

      That’s a tough one! There’s no easy answer on this because it really depends on the type of bag that the manufacturer used for their boxed wine. Generally, the plastic bladder is made out of a #7 plastic which is basically the “other” category for plastics. Due to the fact that #7 plastics can sometimes contain BPA, which is unsafe for food storage, some wine distributers may be using alternative plastics for their bladders. If there is a recycling symbol with a number then you’ll be safe to recycle it with other plastic films if it’s #2 or #4. #7 is not usually accepted in most places. You might have to contact the company that provides the plastic bag bins at your local retailer.

      Reply
  8. Deborah Link

    July 8, 2021 at 7:30 am

    If plastic grocery bags are wet or have any hint of spills from other liquids ie. juice or beer are they recyclable?

    Reply
    • April

      July 9, 2021 at 7:15 am

      Great Question! When recycling plastic bags at a drop-off location, they are required to be clean and dry.

      Reply
  9. Peter Brewster

    July 23, 2021 at 2:43 pm

    I have a bin full of somewhat dirty bags from garden mulch and similar products, and another pile of pretty clean product wraps (i.e. TP, paper towels, etc.) or food delivery and pet food bags. What to do with them?

    Reply
    • April

      July 26, 2021 at 7:41 am

      Product wraps are fine to go in the plastic bag drop-off bins. I’m not sure what type of bags you are describing for food delivery but if they are regular plastic bags similar to what you get from a grocery store, they are fine to go in the plastic bag drop-off bins as well. As for the garden mulch type of bags, they are not typically accepted in curbside programs and they are usually too dirty for plastic bag drop-off. There are many types of bags for pet food bags (paper, wax or plastic coated paper, and plastic) out there so it would be hard to make a general statement about them, so you can look at the label then check with on the Recycle Coach app or with your local municipality to see if they accept that specific type.

      Reply
  10. Rob

    July 23, 2021 at 7:32 pm

    Is the plastic used for vacuum sealing fish, and other meats recyclable with other plastic bags accepted at retailers? I know one part of this question was asked prior but it was not directly answered. I have read multiple sources with varying and/or incomplete information regarding this. I hope you can shed some light on this for me.

    Reply
    • April

      July 26, 2021 at 7:31 am

      There is varying information because it depends on what type of plastic it is made from and what the specific company that collects the bags dropped off will accept. Some may have a recycling loop that says “Store Drop off” with “Bags, Film, Wrap” but likely not. You might have to look at your local retailer to see what company collects the bags and reach out to them and ask if vacuum sealed fish and meat wrapping is accepted with their specific drop-off program.

      Reply
  11. Virginia

    August 5, 2021 at 3:35 pm

    Some frozen food bags are labeled LDPE4
    Can they go in with other LDPE4 bags?

    Reply
  12. Anne

    August 14, 2021 at 5:05 pm

    Can the thicker type of bags that hold grapes for example are they recyclable at your store drop off?
    Also as I am an avid recycler for the environment, I really appreciate this article. Thank you.

    Reply
  13. Jen

    September 20, 2021 at 9:19 pm

    I have a ton of Ulta Beauty bags I’ve been saving to recycle. There are no symbols on the bags (though they do say they are recyclable). Do you know if these can be included with the grocery store bags you mentioned in your article?
    Thanks so much!

    Reply
    • April

      September 24, 2021 at 2:25 pm

      Ulta is making upgrades to their sustainability by creating a closed loop model. This means they may take back packaging and bags. This model is in progress and growing, so check with an Ulta store if take-back programs are available.

      Reply
  14. Paul

    September 21, 2021 at 11:44 am

    I am curious about tyvek envelopes. I believe they are made out of some kind of plastic but not very similar to the usually recyclable plastics. I’m guessing they can NOT go in with bags but I’m curious how they can be recycled. They do have a recycling logo on them.

    Reply
    • April

      September 24, 2021 at 2:34 pm

      Tyvek bags are not able to be recycled in the grocery store drop-off bins, but Tyvek does offer a specialty recycling program for these bags. You can contact Tyvek directly for information.

      Reply
  15. Carrie

    September 27, 2021 at 9:50 pm

    Do you know if the stickers used by delivery services would make the grocery bags not recyclable? They are almost impossible to remove, very sticky.

    Reply
    • April

      September 28, 2021 at 7:50 am

      Excellent point! Stickers are not accepted on plastic bags. It must be all plastic going into the plastic bag & film drop-offs. If you’re willing to take the time, you can always cut the sticker off and throw it away to salvage the rest of the bag for the drop-off.

      Reply
  16. ROBERT R MCMULLEN

    September 28, 2021 at 4:37 pm

    I have a recycling idea that could be useful. What about stuffing plastic bags into plastic milk bottles – so that the plastic is all contained in a compact and easy situation for conveyor belts? Wouldn’t a conveyor belt be okay if the plastic isn’t loose, but stuffed tightly into the jugs?

    Reply
    • April

      September 29, 2021 at 11:12 am

      The problem with that is they are two different types of plastic, so in order to be recycled, they must be separated. The conveyor belt moves too quickly for workers separate that and a rigid plastic jug filled with soft plastic bags would end up contaminating the rigid plastic load.

      Reply
  17. Cindy

    October 2, 2021 at 10:25 am

    April, you suggest that 6 pack rings should go into the trash, and I would be grateful if you would note that these rings strangle all kinds of creatures, in the water and on land. Your readers are obviously conscientious and maybe would take the time to cut open the rings before throwing in the trash. I thank you and your readers for your guidance and questions on plastics–so difficult! I try to substitute for and reuse plastics, but would also appreciate substitutes. Any suggestions for how to dispose of kitty litter for example? For produce, my supermarket now sells washable net bags.

    Reply
    • April

      October 5, 2021 at 1:05 pm

      Excellent point about cutting the rings! That’s like second nature to me to cut them up before disposing of them, but some people may not know how important that is. Thank you for the reminder!!

      Reply
  18. Kris Foral

    October 2, 2021 at 10:58 am

    Great information! Can bubble wrap be recycled?

    Reply
    • April

      October 5, 2021 at 1:07 pm

      Bubble wrap is accepted with plastic bags and film at designated drop-off locations. You can also check on the Recycle Coach app if your local program offers any bubble wrap recycling.

      Reply
  19. Vicki

    October 3, 2021 at 2:49 pm

    Can clean black plastic trash/yard bags be put in the store drop off bins? We used a bunch for moving and they got torn up and are not reusable for trash or leaves. I’ve not seen these kinds of bags addressed in regards to in store drop off. Thanks!

    Reply
    • April

      October 5, 2021 at 1:17 pm

      Black plastic is not always accepted for recycling, but you can contact the company that runs your local bag drop-off to check.

      Reply
  20. Ann Birner

    October 19, 2021 at 6:06 am

    “Cereal box liners that tear like paper” must go in the trash. Do you mean the waxed paper liners? I reuse them to wrap a block of cheese, a sandwich, to line a tin of cookies, etc. Have not purchased plastic wrap or waxed paper in years!

    Reply
    • April

      October 19, 2021 at 7:16 am

      Those are wonderful ways to reuse liners! Thank you for sharing!

      Reply
  21. Rebecca

    October 31, 2021 at 3:21 am

    I recently bought some thick reusable plastic bags, which the sellers say can be recycled at grocery stores. However, they’re already getting stained by tomato sauce. Do you think of these bags would be recyclable if I washed and dried them, even if they were stained?

    Reply
    • April

      November 16, 2021 at 11:13 am

      It’s hard to say based on a description. If you feel they may be too soiled, then they should not be placed in the recycling drop-offs.

      Reply
  22. Paula Y.

    November 7, 2021 at 12:38 am

    I also have the cereal bag question regarding the plastic opaque type bags that don’t tear so easily. Are they able to be put with the other bags in the store bins?

    Reply
    • April

      November 16, 2021 at 11:23 am

      Some cereal bags are accepted in some store drop-off bins. You’ll have to check with the company that runs the box program in your local store.

      Reply
  23. Veronique

    November 13, 2021 at 5:43 pm

    Is there any assistance for seniors who don’t drive to get to recycling depots other than hiring a cab?

    Reply
    • April

      November 16, 2021 at 11:04 am

      That’s a great question. I would recommend calling your local program to see if they may have any services for such situations. Otherwise, maybe there is a neighbor who may be willing to take your recycling along with their own for any drop-offs needed.

      Reply
  24. Ann

    November 20, 2021 at 2:18 am

    Many packaged foods are now being sold in thicker plastic bags with ziplock-type closures – for example, rice or dried fruits. These are not like chip bags. I have not noticed recycling information on them, and unfortunately they are getting hard to avoid. Are they recyclable? I fear maybe not.

    Reply
    • April

      November 24, 2021 at 12:05 pm

      It’s hard to tell without seeing what exact items you’re referring to. You can always contact the company that owns the drop-off box at your local store. If they fall into one of the types of bags accepted in the bin, but the zipper portion does not, you could always cut off the zipper and discard it.

      Reply
  25. Amy M

    January 16, 2022 at 2:53 pm

    Are heavy plastic food bags with zippers recyclable? We buy 2-lb bags of cheese from Costco. The bags are heavy enough to stand up. Should we cut the zippers off?

    Reply
    • April

      January 25, 2022 at 8:04 am

      It’s hard to tell without seeing what exact items you’re referring to. You can always contact the company that owns the drop-off box at your local store. If they fall into one of the types of bags accepted in the bin, but the zipper portion does not, you could always cut off the zipper and discard it.

      Reply
  26. Letizia Kornberg

    January 20, 2022 at 11:37 am

    Where do the plastic bags that we drop off into the grocery store bins go? I have been told at our local grocer that the bags they collect at their store are picked up by the food distrution trucks, Supervalue and JBHunt and taken away. What do they do with them? I am seeing reports that a lot of it goes to Indonesia and is sorted to some extent but a lot ends up in the ocean.

    Reply
    • April

      January 25, 2022 at 7:53 am

      There are a few different recycling companies that collect bags at grocery stores. You would have to find out what collection company your local store works with then find out their plastic recycling process.

      Reply
  27. Camille Brand

    January 23, 2022 at 11:30 am

    I am discouraged from recycling plastic bags because there are so many exceptions. There need to be ID numbers on all plastic bags that ARE recyclable, whether large like fertilizer and soil/dirt bags or a sandwich bag for a child’s lunch.

    Reply
    • April

      January 25, 2022 at 7:50 am

      Camille, universal IDs would be great on plastic bags. Hopefully in the future as we make more advances in the world of recycling, there may be less confusing procedures, but for now, please don’t be discouraged. Do the best you can because every little bit helps – just don’t add items you’re not sure about.

      Reply
  28. ardinna leong

    February 22, 2022 at 3:01 pm

    i find it fustrating that you say recycle recycle
    but no one accepts plastic bags.
    i called numerous recycling center and grocery stores
    and even the City of Ontario and they told me they
    don’t recycle!!! put it in the trash bin.
    easier said “take to your local retail store”
    where?????

    Reply
    • April

      February 28, 2022 at 7:19 am

      I know that can be super frustrating. There are very few recycling centers that accept plastic bags because the difficulty in recycling soft plastics. It’s additionally problematic at the moment because Covid has put a pause on many retail or grocery collection bins. Also check if big box stores such as Walmart and Target will take them. This may just mean if you don’t have a grocery store that accepts them near you right now, you might have to get creative. You can use some of them as small garbage bin liners instead of buying a separate plastic bag for your garbage bins. That way you’re at least not doubling up your home plastic waste. You could also switch to reusable bags while shopping so that you don’t have to deal with much of this type of plastic. It’s just different in every location based on what a recycling facility can provide.

      Reply
  29. Shelby

    February 26, 2022 at 10:59 am

    What about the bags that apples come in- the ones with holes in them that have handles & zip closures? Thank you

    Reply
    • April

      February 28, 2022 at 6:59 am

      If it is that crinkly plastic material, it would not go into plastic bag recycling. Plastic bag recycling is for the stretchy plastic film, not crinkly. If the bag you’re referring to is a stretchy plastic bag like a plastic film, then it most likely would be accepted if it has a recycling symbol- especially if they are #2 or #4. Cut the zipper part off and throw that part in the trash. If you are still unsure, please dispose of it in trash to avoid recycling contamination.

      Reply
  30. Kenna

    February 27, 2022 at 9:28 am

    Thanks for all this excellent information! I’ve read through the article and comments but not sure I’m seeing the answer to a question I have: For Ziploc and similar bags (no additional rigid zip mechanism), does the zip track part need to be cut off before putting the bag into the store bin? Thank you!

    Reply
    • April

      February 28, 2022 at 7:04 am

      Great question Kenna. Regular ziploc bags that the zip mechanism is built into the plastic do not need zipper removal. The ziploc bags that have a hard piece on top with a more rigid zipper track do need to be removed.

      Reply
  31. Quanette

    March 3, 2022 at 11:29 am

    What if the bag is made of recycled content already – can it be recycled again?

    Reply
    • April

      March 9, 2022 at 1:31 pm

      If it is still the correct type of bag, yes it be deposited in the drop off bins. It is still the same plastic film/bag material.

      Reply
  32. Kelly

    March 8, 2022 at 10:20 pm

    But what are these plastic bags recycled into. Yes it’s easy to wave goodbye to them, but do we know what they’re going to turn into?

    Reply
    • April

      March 9, 2022 at 1:26 pm

      Most of the time they get mixed in with virgin plastic and made into new plastic bags. It mostly depends on who buys the plastic after it’s been broken down.

      Reply
  33. Ken

    May 1, 2022 at 12:53 pm

    Kitty litter is sold packaged in heavier plastic bags that have a
    small graphic with a recycling logo and the words “Plastic Bag” and a URL of howtorecycle.info. I visited that URL and still could not confirm whether I should include these types of heavier plastic bags with the lighter grocery store type bags in the various bag collection bins at local retailers.

    Any ideas on recycling these types of bags?

    Reply
    • April

      May 6, 2022 at 7:10 am

      I don’t believe plastic bag drop offs accept the thick plastic bags such as pet food bags. It must be able to stretch easily when you pull on it. You may want to contact https://www.plasticfilmrecycling.org/ to find out what they accept.

      Reply

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