How to Recycle Plastic Bags

How to Recycle Plastic Bags – Everything You Need To Know About 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? What 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.

Can You Recycle Plastic Bags – And 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 break down 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 of those arrows around the numbers. All the numbers denote, however, 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.

Video: How to Recycle Plastic Bags

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, detergents, and bleach containers.
  3. Polyvinyl Chloride, or PVC. Common applications include toys, plastic piping, and 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, and 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 to 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 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, or 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?

Luckily, you’ll find plastic bag recycling widely available. Many retail and grocery stores, like Target, Walmart, Kroger, and Safeway, offer collection points. By clicking here, you can find locations near you with bag collection bins by entering your zip code. These conveniently located drop-off points simplify the process of plastic bag disposal and help consumers in their journey toward waste reduction.

How should I dispose of plastic bags?

While the ultimate goal is zero waste, plastic bags, and film often pose significant challenges. Prioritizing the reuse and recycling of food bags, like cereal and produce bags, is a crucial step in waste management. With numerous reusable bags available, it’s an achievable goal. If you’re considering curbside programs, ensure no food scraps remain on the plastic. Although not classified as “hazardous waste”, food residue can contaminate plastic.

Remember, when you can, bring your own reusable bags when shopping! This small action contributes significantly to the reduction of plastic bag use and promotes a more sustainable lifestyle.

How to Recycle Plastic Bags Frequently Asked Questions

Does Walmart Recycle Plastic Bags?

Yes, Walmart does recycle plastic bags. They provide plastic bag recycling bins at their stores across the country. If you’re unable to locate these bins at your local Walmart, it’s recommended to seek assistance from a store representative. This convenient collection point facilitates the safe and effortless disposal of plastic bags and wraps.

Furthermore, Walmart has taken significant strides toward more sustainable packaging. Announced in February 2019, the initiatives include:

  • By 2025, ensure all private brand packaging is recyclable, reusable, or compostable.
  • By 2025, make sure at least 20% of private brand packaging is from post-consumer recycled content.
  • By 2022, ensure all consumable food packaging includes How2Recycle labeling.
  • Eliminate non-recyclable PVC packaging material from general merchandise by 2020.
  • Wherever possible, reduce private brand plastic packaging.

These ambitious goals showcase Walmart’s commitment to 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?

Generally, no, plastic straws cannot be recycled due to their small size and flexibility. Despite being made from polypropylene, a recyclable material, their physical properties often cause complications in sorting machinery at recycling facilities. This could lead to contamination of other recyclables.

Remember, those tiny straws accumulate. On average, an American uses 1.6 straws daily. That’s a staggering 500 million straws nationwide each day, becoming a significant amount of trash.

But don’t despair, you have options. Some recycling programs accept plastic straws if packed in a larger #5 plastic container, such as a butter tub, to prevent sorting issues. Before trying this, it’s wise to contact your recycling facility to avoid unintentional contamination.

Another, perhaps simpler, solution is to quit using plastic straws. Opt for reusable alternatives like steel straws, which can be easily carried around for use wherever needed. This is an effortless yet impactful way to reduce your plastic straw consumption.

Can plastic bags and wrapping be recycled?

Yes, plastic bags and wrapping can be recycled. They are typically categorized as plastic film and can be recycled using specialized programs and facilities. Look for collection bins near grocery stores or recycling centers to drop off your plastic bags and film.

Are plastic bags banned in some areas?

Yes, plastic bags are banned in certain regions as part of their efforts to promote environmental sustainability. National grocery retailers like Safeway and Target have implemented bag bans, encouraging customers to switch to reusable bags or paper bags as alternatives.

Where can I recycle plastic bags and wraps?

To recycle plastic bags and wraps, you can find collection bins at various locations near grocery stores, supermarkets, or recycling centers. Look for designated bins labeled for bag and film recycling. These bins are often situated conveniently for easy access and proper disposal of your plastic bags and wraps.

Can I include cereal bags and other plastic film in recycling?

Absolutely! Cereal bags and other types of plastic film can be included in the recycling process. When recycling, it’s important to look for the plastic symbol with a number 2 or 4 on the packaging, indicating that it is suitable for recycling. By properly disposing of these materials, you contribute to reducing waste and conserving resources.

What are some alternatives to plastic bags?

When it comes to alternatives to plastic bags, paper bags are a popular choice. They are biodegradable and can often be recycled. Additionally, reusable produce bags and grocery bags made from durable materials such as cotton or jute are great options for reducing single-use plastic and embracing a zero-waste lifestyle. By opting for these alternatives, you contribute to the reduction of plastic wraps and the overall waste generated.

Recycling plastic bags and film is a commendable step toward sustainable living. Remember to look for collection bins in convenient locations near grocery stores and recycling centers to ensure proper disposal. By incorporating alternatives like paper bags and reusable options into your daily routine, you actively participate in the journey toward a greener future.

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