Bubble wrap, that clear packing material everyone loves to pop, wasn't originally meant to be a packing material. The inventors intended bubble wrap to be a type of wallpaper. But that failed to catch on, and they looked for alternative uses.
Today, many people use bubble wrap as a packing material to keep items safe during shipping. But what do you do with leftover bubble wrap once you’ve received a package? You can recycle bubble wrap, but it’s not as easy as tossing it in your curbside recycling bin.
What Is Bubble Wrap Made Of?
Bubble wrap is made from polyethylene, one of the most common types of plastic available. Plastics are made by chemically changing and processing fossil fuels, such as natural gas or crude oil, to make finished products. Specifically, polyethylene is made from withdrawing and processing the natural gas, ethane.
Manufacturers use high-density polyethylene (HDPE) or low-density polyethylene (LDPE) to make bubble wrap. HDPE, or #2 plastic, is more durable and makes up things like soda bottles, toys, and traffic cones. LDPE, plastic #4, is a lighter, more flexible version of PE, and it's usually the primary ingredient in packaging materials and plastic bags.
Can You Recycle Bubble Wrap?
Yes, you can recycle bubble wrap, but there’s a catch. You can’t include bubble wrap with your curbside plastic recyclables like soda bottles and milk jugs because these are considered plastic films. Since bubble wrap is made from strong yet flexible plastic, it can easily become tangled within the recycling sorting machines. This is a safety issue for workers who’d have to clear those jams in the machines, also delaying the recycling sorting process.
But, there are environmentally safe ways to recycle bubble wrap. Many retail stores, such as Target and Walmart, offer drop-off recycling services for special plastics like bubble wrap and grocery bags. You can also contact mail and shipping centers, such as your local U.S. post office, to see if they‘ll accept bubble wrap for plastic recycling.
How Do You Recycle Bubble Wrap?
A simple internet search on “how to recycle bubble wrap” will likely take you to websites where you can put in your zip code to find drop-off locations near you.
However, there are a few important steps you can take before dropping off bubble wrap for proper recycling:
- Remove any labels and stickers.
- Make sure the plastic lays flat by popping the bubble wrap to get the air out.
- Double-check that what you’re recycling isn't labeled as biodegradable or compostable. These products can’t be recycled, but you can include them in your regular trash collection. While air pillows are commonly made from biodegradable or compostable material, you may also find bubble wrap made from this material, too.
- Bubble wrap should be spotless of dirt and water before dropping it off to avoid soiling the entire container, making everything in it unsuitable for recycling.
Is Bubble Wrap Bad for the Environment?
You risk polluting the environment when you don't properly dispose of plastic. Plastics left in landfills take hundreds of years to break down, leaking toxic chemicals that make ecosystems unsafe for animals.
Plastics that aren't disposed of properly can end up in the water, trapping and injuring animals. Animals may mistake plastic for food and try to eat it, causing them to choke or get it wrapped in plastic. Plastics can upset natural animal environments, causing animals not to thrive or reproduce well.
The production and improper disposal of polyethylene are two significant ways in which bubble wrap negatively impacts the environment. Since polyethylene is made from natural gas, it’s worth noting that harvesting natural gas to manufacture bubble wrap plastic has some harmful effects on the environment.
Air Pollution. Air pollution from fossil fuels can cause various health concerns, such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.
Land Pollution. The process of drilling and developing fossil fuels can cause toxic chemicals to leak. These chemicals can pollute drinking water and soil, leading to health problems like cancer, congenital disabilities, and liver problems in the local population.
Global Warming. The greenhouse gasses these facilities and factories create during fossil fuel production contribute to global warming.
Ecosystem Disruption. Infrastructures built to process oil and gas disrupt animal habitats and migratory paths. Additionally, plastic manufacturing pollutes the air, water, and land as factories spew toxic chemicals, leaving behind microplastics, tiny pieces of plastic less than five millimeters long, for animals to eat.
There are even microplastics inside humans. A study published by the American Chemical Society in 2021 suggests that the average child consumes up to 500 microplastic particles a day, the effects of which are still unknown.
Water Pollution. Oil spills, which can happen when harvesting natural gas, devastate wildlife. For example, the Deepwater Horizon spill by BP in 2010 killed roughly a million sea birds, 5,000 marine mammals, including a record number of dolphins, and 1,000 sea turtles. Furthermore, seafood like fish or shellfish in an oil spill may increase the risk of cancer to people who eat them.
Can Bubble Wrap Be Repurposed?
Repurposing bubble wrap is an alternative to recycling it. Try to use old but still useable bubble wrap when mailing fragile items instead of buying it new. You can also use bubble wrap to keep delicates or antiques safe in storage or during a move.
Other ways you can reuse bubble wrap include:
- Insulation for windows and pipes
- A liner for your shopping bags with bubble wrap to keep food cold
- Covers for plants, protecting them from cold and frost
- Padding for your knees when gardening
- A liner for your toolbox to prevent tools from scratching the inside
- Protection for your palms and to prevent slipping when handling tools
Are There Any Alternatives to Bubble Wrap?
If you know you won't be able to properly recycle bubble wrap, consider using eco-friendly packing materials, which may be made from compostable and biodegradable paper or already recycled material. Paper products, like balled-up newspaper, are great recyclable alternatives.