How to Recycle Bags

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on January 06, 2023

Plastic bags are an integral part of our lives. Plastic in general is everywhere you look. But the mass production of plastic harms the environment. Plastic production requires non-renewable resources and a large amount of energy. The process also produces a lot of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change. 

The amount of plastic bags in landfills is creating another waste management issue. A lot of the time, plastic bags don't get recycled and instead just get thrown away.

Everywhere you turn, you may notice plastic in some form. Plastic film and bags are the main contributors to plastic waste. Over 4.83 million tonnes of plastic film has been created, only 9% of which has been recycled. 

Plastic film is a thinner type of plastic and is challenging to recycle, like plastic bags. You'll find plastic film in: 

  • Produce bags
  • Dry cleaning bags
  • Shipping envelopes
  • Trash can liners
  • Plastic wrap
  • Other flexible plastic packaging

How to Get Rid of Plastic Bags

The problem with getting rid of plastic bags is that most recycling programs don't accept them. In most communities, you'll have to find store drop-off programs. Those plastic bags must also arrive in a specific condition: clean and dry. 

Sometimes, even if your plastic is clean, dry, and in the right place, it may still not get recycled. Every piece of plastic that has been created is still on this planet in some way. That means it's either new, has been recycled, or is in the landfill. 

All this plastic also creates microplastics in our water streams, marine life, and ocean. There is no way to get rid of plastic on Earth altogether.

While that's bad news, there are ways that you can dispose of your plastic bags to help reduce their negative effect on the environment.

Can You Recycle Plastic Bags? 

Recycling plastic bags is different from recycling plastic bottles or jars. This is due to the difference in the material that makes the plastic. While plastic bottles can go in your recycling bin, plastic bags must go to a specific drop-off location, like a grocery store or other retail spot that explicitly collects plastic bags for recycling. 

The typical plastic recycling process involves plastic waste getting collected. Then the plastic gets cleaned and sorted into different types, like #5 or #7. It is then melted down and turned into pellets sold to wholesalers that use recycled plastic for new products. 

Plastic bags can cause problems in the recycling process for other plastics. They are most likely to contaminate the recycling stream and cause problems with the machinery.

The plastic bags recycled through a specific retailer's collection process go to a facility that focuses solely on turning plastic bags into reusable material.

Why Are Plastic Bags Hard to Recycle?

It's hard to know where plastic bag recycling goes wrong because the complete recycling process needs to be better tracked. We don't always know what happens to plastic after processing. Plastic bags that get recycled often become plastic lumber and woven shopping bags.

Reusable plastic shopping bags might seem better for the environment. Still, they need to be reused at least 131 times to balance their overall environmental impact. 

Another reason plastic bags are hard to recycle is that most communities don't accept them in the weekly curbside pickup, which in turn means that most bags are likely to end up in the trash instead of being recycled. With little to no market for plastic bags, communities have no funding to recycle them.

Unfortunately, it's cheaper to make a new plastic product than it is to spend resources and time collecting plastic bags for recycling or reusing. Plastic bags contribute to overall plastic pollution by filling up landfills and contributing to microplastics in the environment.

Until plastic bag recycling becomes cheaper and easier, we won't see easy plastic bag recycling.

Since recycling plastic bags is hard, it's better to use them as many times as possible. This means using them as trash can liners, carrying products in them, or using them for other purposes to lower their environmental impact.

What to Do With Plastic Bags

While it might be hard to recycle your plastic bags, you can reuse them in a variety of ways. This is a great way to get a longer life out of these single-use plastic bags and help you around the house.

Some interesting ways to use your plastic bags include:

  • Using plastic bags as cheap packing material to protect breakable items
  • Preserving your painting tools by placing wet paintbrushes inside plastic bags and tying them shut
  • Keeping your luggage clean by putting your shoes in plastic bags before putting them in your suitcase
  • Protecting your plants overnight from frost by using plastic bags to cover them
  • Using them for crafts like creating a woven basket or as crocheted plastic yarn
  • Taking them to the grocery store and reusing them for your groceries or goods
  • Using them as trash can liners
  • Putting them at the bottom of a potted plant to reduce the soil required
  • Ripening fruit like peaches, plums, or green tomatoes by putting them in a plastic bag, trapping ethylene with the fruit
  • Protecting your car from ice buildup by placing them over your side mirrors or windshield wipers

The process of recycling plastic bags doesn't have to be difficult. But it does depend on your location and what your community offers. If you're not in a place that accepts plastic bags, you can still get creative with the plastic bags you have left from the grocery store. 

Just reusing a bag a time or two gives that bag a second life and reduces its environmental impact. Done many times by many people, this helps create a greater effect. Even the little actions can add up to combat climate change.

Show Sources

American Chemistry Council: “Recycle Beyond the Bag – Recycle Plastic Film.”
American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance: “The conventional plastic bag is the one with the least environmental impacts.” “Recycle Your Plastic Bags, Film and Wrap at Participating Locations.”
Center for EcoTechnology: “Top 14 Ways to Reuse your Paper and Plastic Bags.”
The County of Santa Barbara: “Plastic Bags.”
Ecology Center: “Trying to Recycle That Plastic Bag? The Odds Are Nine to One It’s Not Happening.”
Environment Agency: “Life cycle assessment of supermarket carrier bags: a review of the bags available in 2006.”
Nature Outlook: “How to make plastic less of an environmental burden.”
#WasteLessWednesday: “What Not to Recycle at Home on America Recycles Day.”

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