Can Plastic Bags Be Recycled?

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Although recent times have seen a massive shift in the attitude of people towards plastic waste, it’s quite apparent that there is still much work to be done. A huge portion of the world’s plastic waste, and the ones that we encounter daily, are plastic bags. From our groceries to dry cleaning bags and the plastic envelopes used for air mail, plastic bags are disposed of practically everywhere.

Considering the volume of plastics bags being thrown out every day, recycling them will go a long way towards reducing our plastic waste. What’s the best way to recycle these plastic bags?

Are plastic bags recyclable?

Technically, yes. Just as with other plastic, the polyethylene material from which most plastic bags are made of re-melted and formed into products such as composite lumber or new plastic bags. In practice, it’s not that simple. Most people are aware that standard curbside recycling programs do not accept plastic bags. Why the glaring exception?

Why can’t I throw plastic bags in with the rest of the recycling?

Sorting or separation of recyclable items according to composition is one of the most critical steps in the recycling process. Most of the standard recycling facilities only have the machinery to separate rigid materials such as bottles, aluminum cans, pieces of cardboard, and plastic containers. The thing about plastic bags is that they tend to wreak havoc on these machines. Since they are too thin and soft, they can easily get caught into gears and conveyor belts, jamming them and causing the whole process to stop.

As with any operation, recycling facilities also need to turn a profit. In the long run, the delays and equipment downtime caused by attempting to process plastic bags do more harm than good. Getting special equipment is expensive and sorting the recyclables by hand is both expensive and unreliable. The resolution, undesirable as it may be, is to simply not accept plastic bags.

What’s the best way to have my plastic bags recycled?

It only takes a little bit of extra work to ensure that your waste plastic bags end up in the proper recycling facility. Most retail locations, such as grocery chains and big box stores, allow you to drop off your plastic bags for recycling. These collection bins can typically be found in the storefront, near the main entrance. Having collection bins in grocery stores makes it easy for you to drop off your plastic bags since you’ll be coming back to these stores regularly.

What items can I drop off in these collection bins?

Facilities for recycling plastic bags can process all types of polyethylene bags, which includes both high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and low-density polyethylene (LDPE). However, most plastic bags do not come with any helpful labels. For guidance, the following are the most common plastic bags and films that can be recycled:

  • Shopping and grocery bags
  • Produce bags
  • Zip-loc bags and similar
  • Dry cleaning bags
  • Bubble wrap
  • Plastic shipping envelopes
  • Miscellaneous product wrapping

Tips when dropping off your plastic bags

1. Remove contaminants

Although most of the modern facilities for recycling plastic bags are equipped with ways to remove contaminants such as paper and metals, there is no assurance that your waste will end up in such facilities. In any case, it does not take much effort to remove receipts, labels, and staples from the plastic bag that you are depositing in the collection bins.

2. Wash off any food residue

This is particularly important for plastic bags that were used to contain any food material such as produce or raw meat. Any food residue can attract biological growth, especially since plastic bags can be stored for a long time before they undergo the recycling process. Even just a small amount of contamination can ruin an entire batch of plastic bags. Do your part and wash off any residual food matter and dry the plastic bags thoroughly before depositing them.

3. Bundle together multiple plastic bags

When dropping off plastic bags for recycling, it is best to take some time to accumulate them, bundle multiple bags together in a single bag, and tie off the top securely before depositing. This is recommended since plastic bag can be easily blown away by the wind, rendering your efforts to collect them futile. At worst, loose plastic bags can end up getting blown out to sea and ingested by sea life.

Cutting down on your plastic bag usage

More and more cities and municipalities are passing local legislation banning single-use plastic bags, so recycling them might no longer be as much of an issue shortly. Doing away completely with plastic bags is so much easier said than done, but any amount of effort helps.

1. Use a reusable bag for groceries

Canvas tote bags have become very common nowadays as a viable replacement for plastic grocery bags. Just remember to keep several of these reusable bags in your purse, desk, or car, so you can quickly pull one out when needed. Just remember that these tote bags only help the environment when they are reused – as single-use materials, they are equally harmful and still contribute to solid waste.

2. Choose cardboard or paper over plastic

While there’s still a lot of debate on whether choosing paper over plastic is more practical or environment-friendly in the long run, it cannot be denied that paper products can be much more easily disposed of or recycled compared to plastic. While reusable bags are still the best option, if you must choose between two evils, choose paper.

3. Reuse the plastic bags that you have lying around

Sometimes, it cannot be helped. We might not have our reusable bags on hand, and your grocery store might not offer a paper bag option. You shouldn’t be too hard on yourself when you still end up with a bunch of plastic bags in your home.

At this point, the best thing to do is to make the most out of these plastic bags. Take them with you on your next grocery trip. Use them to line your rubbish bins. Creative people have even come up with ways to turn scrap plastic bags into outdoor rugs, clutch bags, or toys. By maximizing the use of that plastic bag, you contribute to reducing the demand for more plastic bag production.

Final thoughts

While it’s true that complete elimination of plastic bags is a tall order, doing the responsible thing to ensure that they end up in the proper recycling facility is quite doable. It may not be as easy as dropping them off at your nearby curbside recycling bin but going the extra mile to bring them to the collection bins in grocery stores is a small price to pay to reduce our solid waste. If we’re lucky, disposed plastic bags will end up in landfills, where they will take decades to degrade naturally. At worst, they can end up polluting the natural habitat of animals.

Plastic bags have made our everyday lives easier in the past few decades, but it may now be time to move past them. Through local legislation and the efforts of environmentalist groups, we are optimistic that the complete phase-out of plastic bags is possible in the next few years.