Yes, plastic bag recycling is possible — what you need to know

As plastic bags continue to get banned across the nation and world — San Diego is the latest major U.S. city to ban plastic bags — they’ve started to feel like public enemy no. 1.

They’re known for ending up in oceans, looking unsightly in tree branches, and not being recycled curbside. But are they really all bad? The situation is complicated, as a recent Grist article explored. Alternatives like paper bags come with their own carbon footprint (which is higher than that of plastic bags) and reusable cotton bags require tons of water to produce and are generally not recyclable. Some reusable bags need to be used more than 100 times before they’re better for the environment.

plastic bags floating in the ocean
Image Credit: Rich Carey / Shutterstock

While there’s no one right solution to carrying groceries home, plastic bag users can take comfort in the fact that these bags are recyclable, even if your local curbside program doesn’t collect them. If you’re wondering why that is, one big reason is that plastic bags are difficult to process, even with advances in machinery — so they’re better off going to facilities specifically set up to recycle them.

Another reason is that plastic bags are made from polyethylene, the same material that goes into dry-cleaning bags, produce bags, and the wrap around items like toilet paper and paper towels. Curbside, this often gets mixed with multi-layer polypropylene, like what makes up potato chip bags or dog food bags. When companies buy a bale of plastic film, they don’t know what percentage of that bale will be polyethylene, so it’s more productive to do store take-back programs, which are extremely effective in providing high-quality materials that can be recycled.

How plastic bag recycling works

One of the biggest take-back programs in the country is Bag-2-Bag, which has more than 30,000 locations and is run by Novolex, a family of packaging brands. The company also operates the world’s largest closed-loop plastic bag recycling plant, located in North Vernon, Indiana.

“We want people to know that plastic bags are a recyclable product, they’re made with recycled content, and the vast majority are recycled right here in the United States,” says Phil Rozenski, senior director of sustainability for Novolex.

While plastic bags have always been recyclable, technology has made the process easier. The biggest contaminant is paper — all those receipts that get left in the bottom of the bag. Fifteen years ago, dealing with this was a huge deterrent to plastic bag recycling, but now, a float sink tank allows the polyethylene to float to the top, while the pulp sinks to the bottom. The plastic is then melted down and turned into pellets that can be used to make new products.

This leads to another issue Novolex has had to face: The pellets come out as a brown or gray. Why? Think about a child finger-painting. When all the colors are mixed together, you inevitably get a darker shade. The same goes for plastic bags from different stores.

“The biggest challenge is working with retailers to understand that if you want to put recycled content in a bag, we need you to use a gray- or tan-colored bag because we can place higher levels of recycled content in there,” Rozenski says.

Novolex turns its recycled plastic pellets into new plastic bags for retailers because it helps create awareness that recycling your bag can lead to a recycled bag, Rozenski says. Other companies make items like curbside recycling bins, composite lumber and plumbing pipes.

A smooth process

To do your part in keeping plastic bags helpful instead of harmful, bring them to a take-back program at a nearby grocery store. (Need help finding a location? Check out the Earth911 Recycling Search.)

In fact, recyclers need more plastic bags.

“Getting retail bags back from recycling is highly competitive; people would rather reuse at home than recycle,” Rozenski says. “Our biggest competitor in the recycling business is reuse — that’s a phenomenon that doesn’t exist with any other product.”

To help recyclers and manufacturers get on the same page when it comes to plastic film recycling, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) publishes scrap specifications.

“The whole idea is to make sure the buyers and sellers understand what they’re talking about — if I want to sell you a load of tangerines and you think they’re apples, that can be a problem,” says Jonathan Levy, staff liaison for ISRI’s Plastics Division.

“With this guide, it allows other people to enter the marketplace because now they know what the industry is talking about; it just makes things a lot easier.”

While plastic bag bans and their usefulness remain up for debate, one thing is certain: Having a robust recycling business around plastic film is good for everyone.

Editor’s Note: Earth911 partners with many industries, manufacturers and organizations to support its Recycling Directory, the largest in the nation, which is provided to consumers at no cost. Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) is one of these partners.

Feature image credit: Aquarimage / Shutterstock 

By Haley Shapley

Haley Shapley is based in Seattle, where recycling is just as cool as Macklemore, walking in the rain without an umbrella, and eating locally sourced food. She writes for a wide range of publications, covering everything from sustainability to fitness to travel. Read more of her work here.