How to Recycle Plastic Bags

Plastic Bag Recycling

When it comes to recycling, what do you think of first? Is it big blue or green recycling bins, labeled for different types of plastics or glass or aluminum or cardboard or paper? Do you think of plastic bags?

Plastic bag recycling is booming, yet many consumers aren’t even yet aware that plastic bags can be recycled. Let’s look at some of the reasons that might be, as well as how plastic bags are recycled and where you can take your plastic bags for plastic bag recycling.

How Hard Is It To Recycle Plastic?

Truthfully, likely much harder than you might realize. In large part, that is because of the range of types of plastics and how difficult many of those plastics are to breakdown into a form that can then be reworked into something new.

Consider this: only 9 percent of all plastic is recovered in the United States—almost all of which is PET (#1 plastic) and HDPE (#2 plastic) plastic, though even their recovery rates are only 31 and 28 percent, respectively. So what’s the hold-up?

Let’s look at some of the biggest limiting factors when it comes to plastic recycling:

  1. The resin codes. Many consumers mistake the numbers on their plastics for a recycling key, courtesy those arrows around the numbers. All the numbers denote, however, is the resin composition of the plastics; not all of those plastics are actually recyclable. In many places and in many recycling programs, for instance, only #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE) plastics are recyclable.
  2. Even more variations than codes. Even if there are only seven resin codes, there are, in fact, thousands of different kinds of plastics—and they need to be carefully sorted in order to be recycled. (And if they aren’t sorted correctly, and different types of plastics are processed together, it can ruin the whole batch.)
  3. Pigmentation. Assuming they are recyclable, clear plastics can be recycled into any color; white plastics can be recycled into any color but clear. When different colors are introduced into the mix, however, it can be much harder to work with dyes to make them anything other than a darker hue of the color they already are.
  4. Downcycling. Unlike some other recyclables—like glass, for instance—which can be recycled in a closed loop, glass bottles begetting more glass bottles, plastic recycling might more accurately be called downcycling, as it is most often recycled into something else lower down the production line, such as jacket filling, which can then not be recycled. As a result, most plastic recycling can still only be recycled once.
  5. Consumer education. The biggest problem, of course, with plastic recycling is that most consumers don’t know what is and what isn’t recyclable, nor the best way to recycle their plastics.

Plastic Recycling Numbers

As we noted above, plastics are often labeled with one of seven numbers, connected to their resin. Those seven numbers are as follows:

  1. Polyethylene Terephthalate, or PETE. Common applications include food packaging, water bottles, and soda bottles.
  2. High-Density Polyethylene, or HDPE. Common applications include milk bottles, motor oil containers, detergent, and bleach containers.
  3. Polyvinyl Chloride, or PVC. Common applications include toys, plastic piping, even furniture.
  4. Low-Density Polyethylene, or LDPE. Common applications include sandwich bags, grocery bags—what we think of as plastic bags—and plastic wrap.
  5. Polypropylene, or PP. Common applications include rope, plastic tubs, even clothing.
  6. Polystyrene, or PS. What we commonly call styrofoam, common applications include packing peanuts, carry-out food trays, and cups.
  7. Other types of plastic all fall into this category.

In many places, only a few of those types of plastic are recyclable; PETE (#1) and HDPE (#2) are the most commonly recycled plastics, for instance. Fortunately, plastic bags are more and more frequently eligible for plastic bag recycling, so let’s look more closely at that process.

What Happens To Plastic Bags That Are Recycled?

We’ve already seen that most plastic bags are made of #4 plastic, low-density polyethylene (LDPE), though some are also made with high-density polyethylene (#2, HDPE). While many curbside recycling programs will accept #2 HDPE plastics, many fewer will accept #4 LDPE plastics, and as a general rule, you shouldn’t expect your local curbside recycling program to accept plastic bags. That doesn’t mean they can’t be recycled, though!

Instead, many grocery stores and other retail locations offer plastic bag recycling—and in some places may even be required to offer it by law. As a result, you can generally find places for your plastic bag recycling near you—we’ll even help you find plastic bag recycling near you in the very next section!

That doesn’t explain, however, what happens to those plastic bags after you drop them off at a plastic bag recycling location—so let’s look a little more closely at that process. Here’s how you should handle your plastic bag recycling:

  • Make sure there is nothing left in any of the bags, such as crumbs or receipts, which can contaminate your load.
  • Have dedicated storage space for plastic bag recycling. That way you can drop off batches of 50 or 100 bags at a time, especially as they don’t take up much space.
  • Make sure your bags are separated out. Some facilities only take #2 plastic bags, for instance, or only #4 plastic bags. (Other locations, however, may not require your bags be sorted in advance; check your local plastic bag recycling locations for more details on what you need to do in your area.)
  • Once you drop your bags off, one of several things might happen. Your bags might be melted down, or they might be chipped into pellets, depending on what their next use is.

And those plastic bags end up as quite a few different things. Let’s look at some of the most common applications for plastic bag recycling:

  • Composite Lumber. With a mix of plastic bag recycling and lumber scraps (such as sawdust or old pallet scraps, for instance), composite lumber is both hardy and relatively cheap, which makes it a frequent option for decking and outdoor construction. It holds up well to the elements, which makes it a great option for various construction projects. Plastic bags are often chipped into pellets as part of the recycling process if they are slated for use in composite lumber.
  • New Plastic Bags. Of course, plastic bag recycling can also result in new bags after the old bags are melted down as part of the plastic bag recycling process. This type of recycling is far more environmentally responsible than making new bags from scratch, too.
  • Nanotechnology. Carbon nanotube membranes, which are used in nanotech (such as biomedical applications and energy storage), can be made from recycled plastic bags.

Finally, check out these 15 facts about recycling plastic bags.

15 Plastic Bag Recycling Facts

  1. More than one billion plastic bags are used every day.
  2. That works out to an average of 4 bags per person per day in the United States.
  3. And only approximately 3% of those bags are ever recycled.
  4. That means 97% of all plastic bags end up in landfills.
  5. Of the plastic bags that are recycled, nearly half end up in composite lumber.
  6. Almost all of that composite lumber is sold by one of two companies: Trex Company and AERT Inc.
  7. Composite lumber made with plastic bag recycling is more durable than traditional lumber when it comes to outdoor projects, doesn’t need treatment with harmful chemicals, and is pest-resistant and splinter-free, which are all reasons it is often a more environmentally responsible choice than more traditional options.
  8. Composite lumber made from plastic bags is available at many hardware and home improvement stores, such as Home Depot or Lowe’s.
  9. Plastic bags are one of the biggest ocean contaminants, and sea life such as birds and fish often mistake them for food—which can, in turn, lead to their death, either by choking, digestive issues (courtesy the plastic their bodies aren’t equipped to handle), or even getting stuck in the plastic itself.
  10. In fact, up to 80% of all marine trash is plastic bags.
  11. Each year, 100,000 marine mammals die as a result of all of those plastic bags.
  12. How widespread is the problem? Nearly a third of all leatherback sea turtles, for instance, have been found to have plastic in their stomachs.
  13. Nor do plastic bags biodegrade, meaning it can take hundreds of years for them to decompose—even if handled properly in a landfill, for instance.
  14. Because plastic bags are made from petroleum, every ton of plastic bag recycling (between 400,000-500,000 bags) saves between 10 and 12 barrels of oil.
  15. Plastic bags use a lot of oil to produce: 12 million barrels each year. Or another way of looking at it: Roughly a mile’s worth of gasoline is used for every 14 bags produced.

Considering all of that, don’t you want to use fewer plastic bags? And when you are forced to use plastic bags, don’t you want to take advantage of plastic bag recycling?

Where Can I Recycle Plastic Grocery Bags?

Fortunately, plastic bag recycling is widespread, and many grocery and retail stores offer collection points.

For instance, if you click here you can enter your zip code and find collection points near you. Many major retail chains make a point of having plastic bag recycling collection points, as well, including Target, Walmart, Kroger, Safeway, and more.

Does Walmart Recycle Plastic Bags?

They do! Nationwide, Walmart offers plastic bag recycling collection receptacles. These are usually located near the entrance to the store, but you may need to check with your local Walmart if you have trouble locating the collection point.

You should also feel good about recently announced initiatives in which Walmart is asking its suppliers to be better about plastic packaging. The new guidelines, announced in February 2019, include the following:

  • 100 percent of private brand packaging should be recyclable, reusable, or compostable by 2025;
  • At least 20 percent of private brand packaging should be post-consumer recycled content by 2025;
  • 100 percent of consumable (food) packaging should include How2Recycle labeling by 2022;
  • Non-recyclable PVC packaging material should be eliminated from general merchandise packaging by 2020;
  • Private brand plastic packaging should be reduced wherever possible.

Those are some big goals toward a more sustainable future!

Does Home Depot Recycle Plastic Bags?

Home Depot similarly has plastic bag recycling collection points, often in the front of their stores. In addition, they also offer other types of recycling, including electronic recycling and battery recycling, meaning that you can regularly use Home Depot locations to recycle items you might not be able to recycle elsewhere.

You can learn more about their electronic recycling program on their site, and it’s worth learning more about Call2Recycle—their nonprofit battery recycling arm—too, especially as they’ve successfully recycled more than 10 million pounds of rechargeable batteries, for instance.

Does Target Recycle Plastic Bags?

Target was one of the first major retailers to jump on the plastic bag recycling train, first offering it at all stores nationwide in 2010. The move came as part of a major recycling program overhaul in Target stores to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day; the initiative was originally part of a month-long focus on recycling and sustainability.

Recycling stations at the front of each Target store accept a wide range of recyclable products, not just plastic bags. In addition to plastic bag recycling, you can find receptacles for:

  • Aluminum recycling
  • Glass recycling
  • Plastic beverage container recycling
  • Plastic bag recycling
  • Cell phone recycling
  • Ink cartridge recycling

Target has also offered discounts at various points in time for customers who brought their own bags, helping reduce the number of plastic bags their customers need to use, as well.

Can You Recycle Ziploc Bags?

You can! In fact, you can drop off your clean and dry Ziploc bags at any plastic bag recycling collection point. It is, however, incredibly important that your Ziploc bags are clean and dry.

Much like other plastic bag recycling, any crumbs or other contamination can ruin an entire load. And, given that Ziploc bags are frequently used for food storage, it’s especially important that you make sure to clean and dry your bags before dropping them off for recycling.

If you have done that, however, you should be able to drop your Ziploc bags off at any plastic bag recycling collection point to ensure they are recycled appropriately.

Can You Recycle Plastic Straws?

Unfortunately, the answer is usually no. The problem with plastic straws has less to do with the type of plastic used, as polypropylene (plastic #5) can be recycled in some programs, and more to do with the size and flexibility of most plastic straws.

Because plastic drinking straws are so small and so bendy, they have a tendency to get stuck in sorting machinery. They’re also incredibly light, which gives them a tendency to drop through sorting screens, often resulting in either contaminating other loads or other issues.

And plastic straws, small as they are, add up—the average American uses 1.6 straws per day. That’s 500 million straws nationwide per day! That ends up being a lot of trash.

There may be other options available to you, however. First, some recycling programs will accept plastic straws if they are packaged in such a way that they’ll go through the sorting facility without causing problems, such as if you put all of your plastic straws in a #5 plastic container (like a butter tub, for instance, which are usually polypropylene). If this is something you’re considering, please call your recycling facility first; if you try this approach in a facility that will not allow straws even if packaged in other plastic recycling you may inadvertently cause contamination issues or worse.

The other option, of course, is to simply stop using plastic straws. Reusable steel straws, for instance, or easy to take with you for use in places where you would otherwise use a plastic straw—and is an easy way to readily cut down on your plastic straw consumption.

Resources:

  • https://www.alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/tes/solidwaste/info/RecyclingPlasticComplications.pdf
  • https://sustainablebrands.com/read/waste-not/the-many-challenges-of-plastic-recycling
  • https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2018/04/04/7-things-you-didnt-know-about-plastic-and-recycling/
  • http://theconversation.com/why-cant-all-plastic-waste-be-recycled-100857
  • https://www.bustle.com/p/why-is-recycling-so-hard-you-may-think-its-complicated-but-nothing-could-be-easier-8768454
  • https://www.greenlivingtips.com/articles/recycling-by-the-numbers.html
  • https://www.greenlivingtips.com/info/plastic-recycling.pdf
  • https://education.seattlepi.com/happens-plastic-grocery-bags-recycled-4791.html
  • https://georgiarecycles.org/tools-resources/citizen-resource-guides/plastic-bag-guide/
  • https://www.plasticbaglaws.org/get-involved/plastic-bag-recycling
  • https://earth911.com/recycling-guide/how-to-recycle-plastic-bags/
  • https://solutions.recyclecoach.com/blog/all-you-need-to-know-about-plastic-bag-recycling/
  • https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/population_and_sustainability/sustainability/plastic_bag_facts.html
  • https://www.plasticfilmrecycling.org/recycling-bags-and-wraps/find-drop-off-location/
  • https://www.how2recycle.info/sdo
  • https://www.quora.com/What-does-Walmart-do-with-the-plastic-bags-they-receive-to-recycle-that-can-be-from-any-other-store
  • https://corporate.walmart.com/newsroom/2019/02/26/walmart-announces-new-plastic-packaging-waste-reduction-commitments
  • https://corporate.homedepot.com/newsroom/call2recycle-home-depot-recycles-ten-million-pounds-rechargeable-batteries
  • https://www.homedepot.com/c/electronics_recycling_programs
  • https://corporate.target.com/press/releases/2010/04/target-launches-recycling-stations
  • https://ziploc.com/en/Sustainability-and-Safety
  • https://livegreen.recyclebank.com/column/because-you-asked/are-plastic-sandwich-bags-recyclable
  • https://get-green-now.com/recycle-plastic-straws/
  • https://earth911.com/home/food-beverage/recycling-mystery-plastic-straws/
  • https://www.mydisposal.com/plastic-straws
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