Americans consume close to 4.2 million tons of plastic bags and wraps each year in the U.S. alone. While there’s growing awareness about the not-so-convenient side of single-use plastics, cutting them out completely from our consumption cycle will take time and collective effort.
If you find yourself stuck with plastic bags, you can lessen their environmental impact by recycling them.
In this blog, we’ll share how and where you can recycle these bags so that they don’t end up dumped in landfills or clogging the waterways.
What is Recycling?
Recycling is the process of breaking an item down into its raw materials, which can then be used to make something new. The concept supports the idea of a circular economy - keeping problematic items like plastic bags in the consumption system for as long as possible.
We’ve all been taught about recycling back in school, and many have already made it a core part of their lives.
However, the recycling and composting rate in the U.S. is only about 32%. Many who are keen on recycling don’t know where to begin, which items are recyclable, or where to drop them off for reprocessing.
We are here to help. Let us simplify recycling for you, starting with plastic bags.
Why Recycle Plastic Bags?
From grocery runs to meal takeaways, plastic bags have brought heaps of convenience to our daily lives, but not without a heavy cost to the environment.
These single-use bags are typically made from petroleum-based high-density polyethylene (HDPE), low-density polyethylene (LDPE), and linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE).
Plastic bags’ fossil fuel origins mean they release greenhouse gases throughout their lifecycle, even when they are buried in landfills. Not only do they add to the climate change crises, but they are lightweight and sneaky enough to breach the remotest parts of the world.
That’s not all.
Under direct exposure to sunlight, this plastic breaks down into microplastics and is often unwittingly ingested by birds, fish, and other wildlife.
We can minimize the impact by switching to reusable alternatives or recycling them should some plastic bags make their way into our homes.
At a recycling facility, plastic bags are processed into pellets, which can be used to make new plastic packaging or sold off to manufacturers to transform into plastic lumber. Recycled plastic lumber is a versatile material used for making outdoor furniture, decking, park benches, office supplies, water pipes, and much more.
Are All Plastic Bags Recyclable?
Only those plastic bags with a #2 or #4 symbol are typically eligible for recycling. You’ll find this symbol printed on either the bag’s front or bottom. If you cannot find the symbol, it’s better to reuse or discard it than toss the wrong bag in the collection bin.
Although it varies from community to community, most curbside locations do not accept soft, flexible plastic bags and films. Not every facility is equipped to deal with thin, stretchy plastic. In that case, you may need to drop them off at your nearest supermarket or the reprocessing plant itself.
Plastic bags, films, and wrappings that can be recycled through store drop-offs are shopping bags, produce bags, popped bubble wrap, Ziploc bags, meat wrapping, dry cleaning bags, and baby food pouches, to name a few.
Related Article: Upcycling vs Recycling: Which is Better For Planet Earth?
How to Recycle Plastic Bags the Right Way
Most plastic bags are recyclable, but they can’t be tossed in curbside bins. These bags need special sorting and processing, which may not be available at every local recycling facility.
Still, many bags end up in curbside pickups, later creating technical hiccups and disruptions at recycling facilities. Here’s what you can do to make sure your discarded plastic bags get recycled hassle-free.
Get Familiar with Your Local Recycling System
Recycling programs vary from town to town, community to community. So, it’s always a good idea to find out all the recycling options at your disposal and then choose the one that works best for you.
According to the EPA, you can visit Earth911 to find the nearest drop-off locations that accept plastic bags, films, and wraps. This website maintains one of the largest databases of recycling centers in North America. All you need to do is enter the zip code and the material you’re trying to recycle to get a list of locations. You’ll then need to drop off the bags at the collection center or the recycling facility closest to you.
Head to Your Nearest Supermarket
Several retail chains like Target, Walmart, Safeway, Publix, Albertsons, Wegmans, and Kroger have recycling bins and kiosks, typically located near the store entrance. You can drop off different types of plastic bags and packaging, not necessarily only the ones you bought from them.
Trex Recycling Program
Trex is a manufacturing company that uses recycled materials instead of wood to make composite decking and railing. The brand has an extensive recycling program that allows you to drop off a wide range of plastic bags at any one of their 32,000 recycling partner locations across the U.S. and Canada.
They accept grocery bags, bread bags, case overwraps, dry cleaning bags, newspaper sleeves, re-sealable bags, produce bags, and more as long as they are clean and dry. Once collected, the recyclables are sorted at local distribution centers and shipped to Trex’s manufacturing plants in Nevada and Virginia.
Check Out Mail-In Recycle Programs
You can recycle flexible and rigid plastic packaging using TerraCycle’s Zero Waste Boxes. Choose from small, medium, and large sizes and use the box to collect all kinds of plastic packaging. Make sure your waste stream is empty and dry and does not contain biodegradable or foamed plastics. Once filled up, mail the box that already comes with a prepaid shipping label. It’s as simple as that!
Empty the Bags Out
An important part of prepping plastic bags for recycling is making sure they are empty.
Remove receipts, leftovers, and crumbs, as these can contaminate and disrupt the recycling process.
Turn the bags inside out and shake out the contents in the trash or compost bin.
Also, make sure to completely peel off any sticky labels or tapes. You could go one better and clean the bags with water and air dry.
This will help in washing off any food residue or liquids.
Buy a Recycle Collection Bin for Your Home
Before you get on with your recycling conquest, you’ll need a bag collection bin for your home. Any bin with a capacity of 50 to 100 bags will make it easier to accumulate your recyclables and transport them. You can try pressing the bags down to make space for more. Place this container in the garage and keep depositing the bags till you’ve filled it. Then, all that’s left for you to do is drop them off at the nearest recycling location.
Don’t Recycle Compostable Bags
Compostable bags cannot be recycled. They aren’t designed for the recycling system and can contaminate the entire stream by coming into contact with non-compostable plastics. These bags require very specific conditions to decompose, and it’s best to compost them at home or a commercial composting facility.
Do you know if products labeled as compostable and biodegradable are eco friendly? Click on the link to find the answer.
Reduce and Reuse before Recycle
No matter how promising, recycling alone isn’t enough to solve the plastic problem. We are still a long way off from achieving a 50% recycling rate in the U.S. Reducing plastic trash by opting for sustainable alternatives and reusing bags before dropping them off for recycling is equally important.
Opt for Reusable Bags
Keep some reusable, multi-purpose bags handy to avoid a situation where you’ll be forced to accept pesky plastics. Storage bags made from eco-friendly organic cotton will help you reduce your plastic waste stream while adding convenience to your daily routine.
Organic Cotton Mart’s reusable bags are washable, durable, and incredibly versatile - perfect for shopping and storing produce, bread, groceries, travel essentials, and much more.
Repurpose Old Plastic Bags
Don’t take the ‘single-use’ factor at face value. You can get more out of these bags by reusing or repurposing them. Giving these bags a new lease of life is also a whole lot of fun that requires you to be your creative best. Here are a few ideas on how you can extend the life of these bags at home before adding them to the recycling stream.
- Reuse the bags for grocery runs till they are intact.
- Use old plastic bags as trash bin liners or to scoop up pet waste.
- Cut these bags into thin strips and turn them into long strands of yarn. Then, use this material for crochet or knitting projects.
- Upcycle shreds of plastic bags into jumping rope, Halloween decorations, and reusable totes.
As one of the harder-to-recycle materials, soft and flexible plastic bags need a bit more planning than simply tossing them into curbside bins.
And while recycling these bags is great for the planet, solving the plastic pollution crisis requires a well-rounded effort from each of us. One that involves following the three Rs - reduce, reuse, and recycle, in that order.
For reusable and planet-friendly alternatives to plastic bags, check out our collection of 100% certified organic cotton bags here.