Can You Recycle Plastic Bags? (Explained & Solved!)

Americans go through an inconceivable number of plastic bags per year: 100 billion. This requires about 12 million barrels of oil!

Plastic harms human health and the environment, plus all that waste adds up on landfills, as incinerated trash, and as litter.

So what can we do with all our plastic bags? Can we recycle them, or must we repurpose them? And what should we use instead?

Here’s Whether Plastic Bags can be Recycled

Most types of plastic bags available at the cash register supermarkets can be recycled but only in certain collection areas. Make sure to bring them to the appropriate type of facility. Clean your plastic bags beforehand, otherwise they will contaminate the recyclables and make them unrecyclable.

Note that black plastic bags are sometimes excluded from store collection bins because they are harder to recycle. The dyed plastic produces darker pellets, which limits the ways they can be reprocessed and repurposed.

Can I Put Plastic Bags in the Recycling Bin?

No. Plastic bags and any type of thin, flimsy plastic material, including grocery store bags, produce bags, Ziploc-type baggies, and plastic wrap cannot be recycled in curbside recycling in the U.S. This material is so lightweight that it gets caught in standard recycling machinery. It requires a specialized type of recycling equipment. That also means you should not put all your recyclables in a plastic bag for curbside recycling.

Call your local recycling center to confirm what kind of plastics they accept.

Where Can I Recycle Plastic Bags?

Plastic bags can be recycled outside grocery stores and pharmacies, like Target, Walmart, and Whole Foods. Look for the collection bins near the store’s entrance. These collection points will usually accept other types of plastic bags. If they don’t, direct your questions to your local recycling center.

If you can’t find any collection points near you, try searching your zip code for a drop-off location.

Are Plastic Bags Recyclable in All States?

Yes, but some states, cities, and counties have banned plastic bags. California was the first state to ban plastic bags back in 2014. Over 300 localities have regulations against plastic bags across over 20 states. Plus, over 120 countries have some type of plastic bag regulation as well. Some stores ask customers to pay an extra fee to use plastic bags to dissuade them from using them.

In places that have banned plastic bags, collection areas for them may be less common. And keep in mind that because of COVID-19, some stores have paused their plastic bag collections, so it may be a good idea to call the store before your drop-off.

How are Plastic Bags Recycled?

Specialized equipment melts plastic bags down to create new plastic bags, or other plastic products, such as decks, benches, tables, fences, and playground equipment. Often, the plastic is reformed into pellets, which are sometimes shipped to a company to turn it into composite lumber.

What are Plastic Bags Made Of?

There are a lot of different types of plastic bags. Grocery store bags, sandwich baggies (like from the brand Ziploc), frozen food bags, bread bags, produce bags, and newspaper bags are all made from a thin, flimsy type of plastic. These plastic bags are made up of either low-density polyethylene (#4 plastic) or high-density polyethylene (#2 plastic). All plastics are made from oil.

Are Plastic Bags Bad for the Environment?

All plastics are made from oil, which is a nonrenewable resource. Oil causes major environmental damage, from oil spills in the ocean to oil pipeline leaks in watersheds. Continued reliance on oil also supports its use as a fossil fuel. Burning oil releases greenhouse gases, which speeds up global warming.

It takes 1,000 years for a plastic bag to break down in a landfill. This decomposing process isn’t like how organic matter can completely disappear: when plastics break down, they just end up producing a lot of microplastics. These microplastics absorb toxins and continue to cause pollution.

Plastic bags kill animals every day. Sea turtles mistake plastic bags floating in the ocean for jellyfish and ingest them, leading them to think they are full, when in fact they have ingested no nutrients. Whales and other animals also mistakenly ingest plastic bags. Chemical leachates from plastic bags impede the growth of the prochlorococcus, a type of marine bacteria that gives the world one-tenth of the planet’s oxygen.

Are Plastic Bags Bad for Human Health?

Humans ingest microplastics, and no one really knows where they are coming from. It could be from food packaging, from further back in the food chain, from other sources, or from a combination of factors. We don’t yet have the full research on how plastics affect human health, but we know that our bodies accumulate plastic. It’s estimated that humans consume a credit card-sized amount of plastic every week.

Plastic bags, in particular, are dangerous for young children who could suffocate when playing with them.

The plastic used for bags contains chemical additives like endocrine disruptors, which have been linked to cancer, birth defects, and weakened immune systems in both humans and wildlife. Over 90% of people in the U.S. over age six have traces of Bisphenol A, also known as BPA, a substance found in plastics. BPA stops the body’s natural hormones from functioning, which causes various health disorders.

Why are Plastic Bags so Popular?

Many governments subsidize oil, which makes plastic cheap and widely available. But plastic didn’t start being used until the 1960s, and single-use plastic bags weren’t available until 1979. Two large U.S. grocery store chains, Kroger and Safeway, didn’t begin offering them to customers until 1982. Now, they are available in every store to transport your food and goods.

Americans use one plastic bag per day on average. They are seemingly inescapable, yet folks in Denmark only use four per year on average.

What are Easy Alternatives to Plastic Bags?

Since plastic wasn’t largely used until the 1960s, we can look back in time for some plastic alternatives, and also look at today’s modern inventions for more sustainable substitutes.

Canvas bags made of organic hemp or bamboo are sturdy, sustainable options instead of plastic bags. Because bamboo regrows so quickly, harvesting it does not cause deforestation. Bamboo is also naturally antibacterial.

Hemp is biodegradable and recyclable. Nearly everything made from plastic can be made from hemp. It’s a versatile natural fabric. Hemp is strong, heat-resistant, nontoxic, and removes carbon dioxide from the air, whereas the production of oil for plastic emits large amounts of carbon dioxide.

Cotton bags work too, but cotton requires a lot of water to be properly manufactured.

Free tote bags are popular to give away as swag or merch at conferences and such but don’t accept every free tote bag that’s offered to you. A few canvas bags are really all you need. If you sense them piling up in your home and you don’t use them, donate them to friends and family who need to break their plastic bag habit.

Many reusable bags are made from recycled plastic. They are sturdier than regular plastic bags, but if you are aiming to go totally plastic-free, consider a different alternative. If you want to go old-school, you can use cardboard boxes to transport your food and goods. Cardboard boxes are easily repurposed, and once flattened, acceptable in curbside recycling (as long as they don’t get wet or contaminated).

What Can I Do with Old Plastic Bags?

Plastic bags can be reused for anything if you wash and dry them. Since they are water-resistant, it’s not a bad idea to have a few on hand in emergencies. You can also use them as:

  • A way to pick up pet waste
  • A transportable trash receptable in the car
  • Use it for storage
  • Liner for drawers or trash cans
  • Stuffing for packages instead of purchasing bubble wrap

Final Thoughts on Can You Recycle Plastic Bags

In 2015, over 87% of plastic bags, sacks, and wraps were never recycled. That is probably caused in part by a lack of public knowledge about where and how to recycle them. It’s not always clear what kinds of plastics you can put in curbside recycling. But now you know that collection bins outside many chain stores such as Target, Walmart, and Whole Foods accept plastic bags of various kinds.

If you want to go plastic-free, there are sustainable alternatives for carrying your groceries and other items. And there are ways to reuse and repurpose your old plastic bags without putting them in a landfill. Remember, any questions about your locality’s rules and regulations about using and recycling bags are best directed at your local recycling center.

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