Can you recycle plastic bags?

For most conventional recycling centers, the answer is ‘no’

The world goes through trillions of plastic bags every year. Those sacks are difficult to recycle, hard to contain in landfills, and easily break down into microplastics that pollute waterways, wildlife, and even drinking water.

Can we recycle all those plastic bags? Yes, and no. For conventional recycling centers, however, the answer is “no.” Plastic bags are often made of a material called low density polyethylene, and they are considered plastic film, which cannot be recycled with hard plastics at most traditional recycling facilities. In fact, they should never be placed with other plastics in the recycling bin, because they can spoil the whole lot.

But there are some special programs that collect only bags and plastic film. These programs, which often have collection points at grocery stores, return the bags to manufacturers or distributors. From there, they break down the plastic into small pieces, which then go on to become lumber, decking, carpeting, or other construction materials. Plastic bags recycled through these programs do not need to have a recycling symbol on the bag. Here’s what you need to know about how—and how well—these systems work.

How to recycle plastic bags

First thing’s first: Never toss plastic bags in with your regular recycling. When plastic bags are sent for traditional recycling, they tangle and wrap into machines, causing them to break down or need to be cleaned, which can stop recycling operations. For the same reason, you should never bag your recyclables before placing them into the bins, as any plastic bag or similar film or wrap could cause problems at the recycling center.

Almost all plastic bags and film can be recycled through special drop-off collection programs. Air pillows, bubble wrap, and plastic packaging without additional elements like paper can all be recycled; this includes the thin-film shipping pouches you get from Amazon or other online retailers—as long as you remove the paper shipping label. 

These recycling programs do have exclusions. They won’t take contaminated or dirty plastic bags, those that contain other products or labels made of paper or metal, and many compostable or biodegradable plastics. To ensure that you are appropriately recycling your bag or film, check the rules listed for whatever collection drop off program you choose before cramming your castoffs in their bin. 

Where can you recycle plastic bags? 

A list of drop-off locations for plastic bag collection was previously available through through BagandFilmRecycling.org, but has recently been removed citing a lack of integrity and commitment from the industry following an ABC investigation. However, Target, Home Depot, Safeway, Walmart, Harris Teeter, and most major grocery store chains also offer drop-off collection boxes. Almost no local municipalities offer curbside recycling for this type of plastic. 

The EPA estimates that 4.2 million tons of plastic bags and wraps get made every year just in the United States—and only 10% of those were recycled. 

How are plastic bags repurposed after recycling? 

After plastic bags and films are returned for recycling, they are often sent to programs that break down the bags and turn them into construction materials or lumber. For example, one popular company for collecting returned bags, Trex, transforms the bags into hard plastic decking material.

This type of recycling is called “downcycling,” because the quality of the plastic material declines after it has been recycled, and the new use for the plastic is one with little future potential for recycling. While downcycled plastic loses its value for future recycling, it typically is transformed into a material with a very long life in order to delay its need to enter a landfill.

The problems of not recycling plastic bags

The United Nations estimates that 11 million metric tons of plastic enter the oceans annually1, causing marine life to choke on, become tangled in, or ingest plastic. Plastic bags are some of the most obvious pollution culprits because they are lightweight and easily break down into smaller pieces, and because so many of them are produced annually. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 4.2 million tons of plastic bags and wraps get made every year just in the United States—and only 10% of those were recycled. 

When plastic bags are exposed to wind, sunlight, and weather over time, they break down into smaller flakes of plastic, called microplastics, which end up inside the bodies of wildlife and then in human food and drinking water. Plastic waste in rivers and oceans can also become breeding grounds for bacteria, which can then harm both wildlife and human beings.

Environmental impact of recycling plastic bags

While plastic bag recycling can help to prevent plastic bags from entering landfills or polluting waterways, that’s not a sure thing. Many of the bags recycled through collection programs never actually make it to recycling centers. Instead, they often end up in landfills or incinerators abroad. 

What about ‘eco-friendly’ alternatives to plastic bags? 

By far the most sustainable bag is one that you already own.

Plastic bag alternatives do help prevent waste, but they’re also an imperfect solution. Paper bags require lumber for their production and making them generates high carbon emissions. While paper is more easily and commonly recycled, every time paper is recycled its quality declines, giving it a limited life reuse. Reusable bags made of cotton create so much carbon emissions in their production that they need to be used hundreds of times to break even with the emissions of a plastic bag. 

Bags labeled as “biodegradable” or “compostable” may produce less carbon emissions than traditional plastic bags over their lifespan, but they are also very difficult to recycle or compost. Many biodegradable plastics aren’t accepted in plastic bag recycling drop offs, and when they escape landfills into waterways or are set loose in the environment, they still create microplastics. If you have access to an industrial composting facility or a program that accepts biodegradable bags, these bags can become a good alternative.

Plastic bag bans, laws, and other plastic reduction initiatives 

California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont, as well as cities including Chicago, Boston, New York, and Seattle, have all banned the distribution of single-use plastic bags at major retailers. Most other states and many municipalities impose some kind of restriction or initiative on single-use bags, ranging from requiring retailers to provide recycling collection boxes or placing a five- or ten-cent tax on every plastic bag.

“Reduce, reuse, and recycle” applies to plastic bags just as it does to all other waste. The fewer sacks you acquire, the less future pollution there will be. You can reduce and reuse together in creative ways. For example, if you’re going to buy plastic trash bags that will end up in a landfill, you might as well reuse the plastic bags from past shopping trips shoved in the back of your cabinet. Because recycling is so difficult and sometimes ineffective, it should be your last resort for your plastic bags.

  1. From pollution to solution, United Nations Environmental Programme, Oct. 2021. ↩︎