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

The United States uses an incredible 100 billion plastic bags per year, which requires about 12 million barrels of oil!

Plastic harms human health and the environment, plus all that waste adds up in landfills as incinerated trash and 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 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, limiting how 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. Because this material is so lightweight, it gets caught in standard recycling machinery and requires specialized 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, such as Target, Walmart, and Whole Foods. Look for the collection bins near the store’s entrance. These collection points 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 in over 20 states have regulations against plastic bags. Plus, over 120 countries have some regulation of plastic bags. 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 may be less common. Also, keep in mind that some stores have paused their plastic bag collections because of COVID-19, 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 bags or other plastic products, such as decks, benches, tables, fences, and playground equipment. The plastic is often reformed into pellets, which are sometimes shipped to a company to turn 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 either low-density polyethylene (#4 plastic) or high-density polyethylene (#2 plastic), which are all made from oil.

Are Plastic Bags Bad for the Environment?

All plastics are made from oil, a nonrenewable resource that causes major environmental damage, from oil spills in the ocean to pipeline leaks in watersheds.

Continued reliance on oil also supports its use as a fossil fuel. Burning oil releases greenhouse gases, which speed 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 produce 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, making them think they are full when they have ingested no nutrients. Whales and other animals also mistakenly eat plastic bags.

Chemical leachates from plastic bags impede the growth of Prochlorococcus, a type of marine bacteria that provides one-tenth of the planet’s oxygen.

Are Plastic Bags Bad for Human Health?

Humans ingest microplastics, and no one knows where they come from. They could be from food packaging, further back in the food chain, other sources, or a combination of factors.

We don’t yet have complete research on how plastics affect human health, but we know 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, such as endocrine disruptors, which have been linked to cancer, birth defects, and weakened immune systems in 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 prevents the body’s natural hormones from functioning, causing various health disorders.

Many governments subsidize oil, which makes plastic cheap and widely available. However, plastic wasn’t used until the 1960s, and single-use plastic bags weren’t available until 1979.

Two prominent U.S. grocery store chains, Kroger and Safeway, didn’t offer them to customers until 1982. They are available in every store to transport your food and goods.

Americans use an average of one plastic bag per day. Although plastic bags are seemingly inescapable, folks in Denmark only use four per year on average.

What are Easy Alternatives to Plastic Bags?

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

Canvas bags made of organic hemp or bamboo are sturdy, sustainable alternatives to 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 oil production 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, but don’t accept every free tote bag offered to you. A few canvas bags are all you need.

If you sense plastic bags 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 consider a different alternative if you aim to go plastic-free.

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 water-resistant, having a few on hand in emergencies is not a bad idea. You can also use them as:

  • A way to pick up pet waste
  • A transportable trash receptacle 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 due in part to a lack of public knowledge about where and how to recycle them. It’s unclear what kinds of plastics can be 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 to your local recycling center.

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