Can Plastic Bags Be Recycled?

Recycling them is easier than you think.

Multi-color plastic bags crumpled up.

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While you can’t typically recycle plastic bags in your curbside recycling bin, you can recycle them through specialty plastic recyclers. You may even be able to drop them off at a nearby retail store that collects them for recycling.

Plastic grocery and retail bags are made from polyethylene, synthetic polymers made from hundreds of monomers linked together by strong chemical bonds. They are made from nonrenewable petrochemicals derived from fossil oil, natural gas, and coal. As a result, their manufacture releases greenhouse gases. 

When tossed in the trash, plastic bags accumulate in landfills and natural ecosystems where they can contaminate natural systems and harm wildlife. As plastic slowly degrades, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, or microplastics, that are easily consumed by wildlife. Many seabirds unintentionally eat plastic pieces because the pieces mimic their natural prey. As a result, they can suffer from malnutrition, intestinal blockages, or gradual poisoning from chemicals in the plastic.

The EPA reports that in 2018, about 4,200,000 tons of plastic bags, sacks, and wraps were generated in the United States. Only 10% of those were recycled. Commit to increasing this recycling rate by recycling your own plastic bags and reducing your environmental impact.

Widespread recycling programs are making it easier to recycle your plastic bags, but the recycling process does have its challenges. Because plastic grocery and retail bags are generally thin and lightweight, they can clog regular recycling equipment (hence the specialty plastic bag recyclers). They are also commonly contaminated, which affects the recycling process and results in lower quality post-consumer plastic.

How to Recycle Plastic Bags

Person putting plastic bag in yellow recycling bin.

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Plastic Bag Recycling Codes

One way community recycling programs specify what they do or do not accept for recycling is by using Resin Identification Codes (RICs), sometimes called “recycling codes.” Those are the numbers you see inside the small recycling symbol stamped on materials. 

Plastic bags generally fall under the #2 and #4 RICs. If your bag is marked with either of these numbers, you can assume its welcome in plastic bag recycling bins. 

Examples of #2 plastics include more heavy duty bags, like those you get from grocery stores and fashion retailers. Thinner bags, like plastic produce bags, are likely made from #4 plastics.

But be careful—rigid plastics like bottles and jugs are also marked with #2 and #4 RICs. Plastic bottles and jugs are often accepted in curbside recycling programs. While they technically have the same RIC as plastic bags, you shouldn’t toss your bags in with your other recyclables unless your program specifies that it accepts them.

Preparing Plastic Bags for Recycling

Contamination is a significant recycling challenge posed by plastic bags. The bags are often riddled with food waste or other grime, which can interfere with the recycling machinery. Recycling contaminated plastic bags results in post-consumer plastic that’s low in quality compared to plastics created from cleaner materials.

Recycling plants generally have workers scanning the bags as they move by on a conveyor belt before they’re melted down. Those workers will pluck out any contaminants by hand, but there’s no way to completely clean the bags quickly. 

Instead, do that part before you toss your bags in the bin. Empty out each plastic bag and remove any items, like food residues or receipts. You should also separate any excess materials that you can—remove stickers and tape if possible. If you do rinse the bag out, shake it dry before putting it in the recycling bin. Wet materials may be removed from the recycling stream and sent to the landfill.

Store Drop-Off

Most major national grocery retailers accept plastic bags for recycling, often partnering with large plastic recyclers. Find these recycling bins near the store entrance marked as “plastic bag recycling” or something similar. Participating grocery chains include Safeway, Kroger, Whole Foods, Target, and Walmart. Home improvement stores like Lowe’s also participate. 

Smaller, local retailers may also have plastic bag recycling programs. Give them a call or visit them in person to find out if you can drop your plastic bags off there.

Mail-In

If you don’t live near a retailer with a plastic bag recycling program, consider mailing them in for recycling. TerraCycle has a program for recycling plastic grocery and shopping bags, plus programs to recycle plastic snack or chip bags that are difficult to recycle and generally unacceptable in curbside pickup recycling programs. Waste Management has similar mail-in recycling programs.

Check Your Local Curbside Pickup

Plastic bags aren’t usually accepted by municipal curbside pickup recycling programs, but as plastic bag recycling becomes more commonplace, curbside pickup plastic bag recycling isn’t unheard of. Before you go searching for recycling programs, check what’s accepted by your local curbside pickup recycling program. Recycling your plastic bags could be as easy as setting them out with your other recyclables for weekly pick up.

Post-Consumer Plastic

Small pieces of plastic at recycling plant.

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Once you drop your plastic bags off for recycling, workers will remove contaminants, melt them down, and turn them into tiny plastic pellets. At that point, they’re re-formed into composite lumber (used in decks, benches, and playground sets), “new” plastic bags, pipes, crates, containers, and pallets.

Plastic Bag vs. Plastic Film

A plastic grocery bag with plastic-covered produce inside.

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Relatively thick plastic bags made from polyethylene are recyclable, though not all of these items will be accepted at every drop-off location. Check what your recycler accepts before dropping off your bags. Types of plastic bags generally welcome in the bin include:

  • Plastic retail bags
  • Plastic food carryout bags
  • Newspaper bags
  • Bread bags
  • Dry cleaning bags
  • Bubble wrap
  • Air pillows
  • Plastic mailers
  • Plastic cereal box liners

Thin plastic film often included in packaging may be mistaken for polyethylene plastic bags, but they actually aren’t recyclable. Most plastic film manufactured today is made up of multiple polymer layers, each layer with a distinct purpose. Layers may contain polyesters, polyethylene, ethylene vinyl alcohol, and more.

Recyclers can’t easily separate these material layers, so recycling them is futile. Unfortunately, you’ll have to toss these items in the trash. 

To determine if your plastic is recyclable or not, take a close look. Is it shiny on the inside? If so, it’s likely coated with aluminum and can’t be recycled. The same goes for plastics that make loud, crackly noises when you crumple them. The ultimate test is to look for the recycling symbol. If there isn’t one, you likely have to toss the bag in the trash. Here are some examples of plastics that can’t be recycled:

  • Frozen food bags
  • Candy wrappers
  • Chip bags
  • Six-pack rings
  • Pre-washed salad mix bags
  • Compostable bags or film packaging

But check places like Terracycle for recycling programs that accept these difficult-to-recycle items before tossing them in the trash. For example, Terracycle does have a chip bag recycling program, allowing you to mail in your chip bags and recycle them for a fee.

Can You Recycle Ziploc Bags?

Yes, Ziploc brand plastic bags (and other zip-top plastic bags) are recyclable. They are made from soft, flexible polyethylene, which means you can recycle them with your other plastic bags at your nearby drop-off recycling location. Just briefly clean them to remove food residue and shake them dry before placing them in the bin.

Ways to Reuse Plastic Bags

A plastic bag reused to hold clothes.

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Experts say the best way to be sustainable is to reduce, reuse, and recycle—in that order. Saying no to plastic by bringing your own reusable bags to the store is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint because you won’t be supporting the burning of fossil fuels for plastic bag production. But bringing your own bags isn’t always an option, especially when cleanliness is a concern. Single-use plastic bags prevent the spread of bacteria.

The recycling process consumes energy, so reusing or repurposing plastic bags is a very eco-friendly option if you do have to use one. Plus, repurposing your bags is a fun creative outlet that may just be your next hobby. Here are some ideas for how you can reuse or repurpose your plastic bags:

  • Pack your lunch in them
  • DIY plastic bag fabric
  • DIY gift wrapping
  • Reuse them for storage
  • Pick up pet waste
  • Create unique holiday decorations
View Article Sources
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  2. Wilcox, Chris, et al. "Threat of Plastic Pollution to Seabirds is Global, Pervasive, and Increasing." Proceedings o the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 112, no. 38, 2015, 11899-11904., doi:10.1073/pnas.1502108112

  3. "Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2018 Tables and Figures." Environmental Protection Agency.

  4. Sharuddin, Shafferina Dayana Anuar, et al. "Energy Recovery from Pyrolysis of Plastic Waste: Study on Non-Recycled Plastics (NRP) Data as the Real Measure of Plastic Waste." Energy Conversion and Management, vol. 148, 2017, pp. 925-934., doi:10.1016/j.enconman.2017.06.046

  5. Hale, R.C. and B. Song. "Single-Use Plastics and Covid-19: Scientific Evidence and Environmental Regulations." Environmental Science and Technology, vol. 54, no. 12, 2020, pp. 7034-7036., doi:10.1021/acs.est.0c02269