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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.

20 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
  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
  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

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