Are Plastic Bags Recyclable?

If you didn’t already know, those plastic bags you get from the grocery store and the pouches a lot of your beloved grocery store items come in can’t be recycled at your house. People frequently make this mistake and toss anything plastic into the recycle bin and assume, “they’ll sort it out at the recycling facility.” Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Recycling facilities try their best to sort out good recyclables VS. contaminants, but it’s a hard and expensive job. Employees and machinery spend all day next to a conveyor belt looking for things that don’t belong. But if you can’t tell what’s recyclable when you can get a good look at a package, how do we expect someone to spot bad/good items when hundreds of items are coming down a conveyor?

There are a lot of things that get tossed in recycling that aren’t actually recyclable, but plastic bags are a major culprit. According to the EPA‘s most recent numbers, we create almost 37 million tons of plastic waste. Of that 37 million, only 3.1 million tons are recycled. Meaning we aren’t even recycling 10% of our plastic waste. Now some of that is due to the type of plastic being used, which you can read about here, but there are some simple ways we can change our recycling habits to make a huge impact.

One of the biggest ways we can improve our recycling habits is by putting recyclables in the right place. The easiest place to start? Keep plastic bags out of our recycling bins. Plastic bags and flexible packaging in general can cause a number of problems when they get mixed in with recycling bins.

For starters, they make it really challenging to sort other recyclables. It’s really easy for other bottles, cans, or paper to get stuck inside of bags. This not only makes it really challenging to separate the different materials, but can lead to mislabeling those items stuck in bags. This can lead to paper or aluminum contaminating the plastic recyclables. Unfortunately these bags and any items trapped inside can end up just being sent to the landfill.

Photo by Lucas van Oort on Unsplash

The main concern when it comes to plastic bags is that they can’t be ground up in the same equipment used with other recyclable plastic. In fact they can get tangled up in the machinery, gumming things up and damaging the machinery. This is why it’s so important to keep your bags out of recycling bin. We are talking about thousands of dollars in damage because you put the wrong thing in the recycling bin. This can make it challenging for these operations to be profitable, which in turn makes it hard to charge low prices for the outputs after being processed. It hurts the entire recycling industry. So keep those bags out of your recycling and NEVER bag your recyclables.

This isn’t all doom and gloom though. These plastic bags still have value and can be recycled in their own way. As we have talked about in other blog posts, the How2Recycle program offers a lot of great information on how to handle these bags. These programs have a system of drop-off locations. So simply collect those bags at home and bring them in to one of their locations to be recycled. They will be turned into things like Trex lumber to give them a new valuable purpose. But remember, this only applies to bags that are appropriately labeled or listed on How2Recycle’s website as acceptable. Things like cellophane, biodegradable, compostable, or frozen food bags cannot be brought to these locations. They are made from incompatible materials.

I know at my house we all collect our grocery bags and other acceptable flexible packaging in our pantry. Then every couple weeks we bring them to grocery store close by that accepts store drop offs. So next time you have a bag and you are reaching for the trash or recycling, think again and start a bag collection of your own! Let me know if you have any questions about where your flexible packaging should go. I’d be happy to help!

Author: Miles Quinn

Miles has been in the packaging field for over 5 years after studying packaging science at Clemson University. He moved to Reno, NV after graduating and has fallen in love with the area. He has a passion for environmentalism and is hoping to make an impact both locally and on a large scale

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