Can Plastic Film Be Recycled?

Most of the time, yes — but not in your curbside bin.

High Angle View Of Plastic Bags On Floor
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Plastic film can be recycled, but not in your curbside recycling bin — most municipalities in the United States don't accept it. Instead, you can recycle it by bringing it to a drop-off location.

What Is Plastic Film?

Plastic film is, technically speaking, any plastic less than 10-mm thick. It's usually made from polyethylene resin. Examples include zip-top bags, grocery bags, bubble wrap, and plastic wrap.

How To Recycle Plastic Film

To recycle plastic film, bring it to one of the 18,000+ drop-off locations across the U.S. and Canada. Many drop-offs are located in supermarkets and other large retail stores.

Search for the drop-off location closest to you on the Firm Flexible Recycling Group's Find a Drop-off Location tool. You can get more detail about what types of plastic film a specific location accepts by clicking on the location name.

Before recycling, make sure the plastic film is clean, dry, and free of food residue. Then, it can simply be placed in any plastic bag recycling bin in a drop-off location.

Plastic film cannot be recycled from curbside bins because it gets tangled up with other plastics in the equipment at material recovery facilities. This damages the recycling equipment, and the plastic film ends up going to the landfill.

Reading Plastic Film Labels

The Society of the Plastic Industry (SPI)'s classification system can help you sort your plastics.

On your plastic product, look for a number surrounded by the three arrow recycling symbol. Most plastic film is categorized as #2 plastic (high-density polyethylene) and #4 plastic (low-density polyethylene). Only these two types of plastic film can be recycled.

Plastic film that is not categorized as #2 or #4 should be placed in the garbage, as it is important not to contaminate the recycling stream. Unfortunately, if plastic film does not have a label, it must also be placed in the garbage.

What Happens When Plastic Film Gets Recycled?

During the recycling process, plastic film is brought into the facility in baled form and is then pulled apart by hand or by a guillotine. It is then fed into a shredder and water-fed grinder where it is cut into pieces. The film is then washed and inspected for contamination.

Once clean and dry, the film is placed into an extruder where heat and pressure melt the plastic. The molten plastic is then released from the extruder, formed into fine strands, cooled, and chopped into pellets. The pellets are used by manufacturers to produce new plastic film products.

Recycled plastic film is made into composite lumber, which is used for benches, decks, and playground sets. It is also recycled and reprocessed into small pellets that are used to make plastic containers, crates, pipes, new plastic bags, and pallets. 

Plastic Film Recycling Challenges

The effectiveness of plastic film recycling is a subject of debate among many in the industry. Plastic film recycling programs can succeed only if the recycler accumulates large quantities of material to recycle, which is one reason why it's collected at drop-off locations rather than curbside. Large retail stores collect plastic film from consumers and add it to the film generated by their own facility. They accumulate large quantities of it in a short time, which allows them to market full truckloads of film.

However, many people criticize the store drop-off system as oftentimes the plastic film collected does not end up getting recycled as recycling companies do not have the capacity for it. Therefore, it ends of being sent to the landfill. Additionally, many of the listed store drop-off locations around the U.S. don't actually have a store drop-off system. Jan Dell, founder of The Last Beach Cleanup, only found 18 stores in California that accepted plastic film when there were supposed to be 52. This is a huge problem in the plastics recycling industry as there is a misconception by consumers that when they take their plastic film to store drop-off locations it will be recycled 100% of the time.

In general, the U.S. only has a 5% processing capacity for plastic films and the majority of the film that is able to be recycled are pallet wraps from retail store sources as they tend to be cleaner. Additionally, the market for plastic film recycling is not ideal as it is much more profitable to make new plastic film rather than recycling old film. The cost to collect, sort, clean, and reprocess old plastic film is 100 times higher than creating new plastic.

How to Use Less Plastic Film

Bee's Wax Wrap

Jules Ingall / Getty Images

The best way to manage plastic waste is to not create it in the first place. In 2020, an industry research group found that 5.3 million Americans had used 10 or more rolls of plastic wrap within a six-month period. Plastic film contributes to the plastic pollution crisis as it is challenging to recycle and it contains chemicals that when broken down, are harmful to the environment.

Luckily, there are sustainable and affordable alternatives to plastic film.

Beeswax wraps — made of cotton, beeswax, jojoba oil, and tree resin — are a great replacement for cling wrap. They become malleable after a few rounds of unfolding and scrunching, and they keep food fresh. Beeswax wraps can be cleaned and reused for 1-2 years, and when they finally wear out, you can compost them.

Simple swaps can dramatically reduce the amount of plastic film you use. For example, instead of carrying food home in single-use plastic, bring a few reusable bags to the grocery store. Replace your zip-top bags with portable, reusable containers for on-the-go food storage.

If you do have plastic film lying around and you won't be able to recycle it, try to find a way to use it at least one more time. For example, plastic grocery bags can be re-purposed as garbage liners or pet waste bags. Cling film can be rinsed off and reused more than once.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Is recycling plastic film sustainable?

    Recycling plastic film is more sustainable than throwing it away, but plastic film itself will never be sustainable because it can only be "downcycled"—made into something of lesser quality—and relies on the continuous production of virgin plastic. Recycling the film is also 100 times more expensive than creating new film.

  • Is there such thing as compostable cling wrap?

    New and innovative versions of plastic film include iterations made from corn starch and potato scraps. These plant-based alternatives break down in compost piles within six months.

  • How long does it take regular plastic film to decompose?

    Plastic items, in general, can take between 20 and 1,000 years to decompose. Because it's so thin and pliable, plastic wrap would be on the lower end of that range.