ByPatti Roth

Oct 29, 2021
globe of earth encased in plastic bag

Even if you’re diligently working to reduce waste, disposable bags probably ease into your routine.

Produce bags. Paper bags. Pretzel bags. Pet-waste bags. Garbage bags. Gift bags. Biodegradable bags. And so on. Even reusable bags eventually wear out.

What is the best way to responsibly discard different kinds of disposable bags in an earth-friendly manner? We talked to some waste management professionals to get their perspectives.

Disposable Bags & Recycling

Most mixed recycling services do not want any type of plastic bag included with papers, plastics, and glass. It’s an easy rule to follow. Yet even well-meaning folks often ignore it, often “wish-cycling” — including the bags in their recycling bin in the hopes that they will get recycled.

This can cause expensive problems at the recycling facility. Plastic bags and other flexible filmy plastics wrap around recycling equipment. This interferes with efficient sorting and occasionally requires workers to shut down equipment to dislodge the bags.

If you use a plastic bag for storing household or office recyclables, open it and dump contents into your recycling bin so all items are loose. Save your plastic bag for reuse, or recycle it at a separate drop-off point where plastic bags are accepted. If neither option is viable, discard it in your garbage so doesn’t cause costly shutdowns at the recycling plant. Littered plastic bags aren’t just unsightly, they also create a hazard for wildlife and often end up polluting our precious waterways.

disposable plastic bag pulled from pond with stick
Plastic bag plucked from a neighborhood pond. Image: Patti Roth

If you bundle mixed recyclables inside a plastic bag, workers at recycling facilities likely will pull it out and discard it as garbage, explains Robert Pickens, treasurer of Oklahoma Recycling Association and vice president of recycling for American Waste Control.

Janette Micelli of Waste Management says, “Bagged recyclables in plastic bags are pulled off the line. Closed plastic bags with items inside are considered contamination.”

Common Bag Recycling Requirements

While requirements vary with individual recycling services, some other rules for bags apply widely. Always check with your recycling provider for local rules.

  • For many mixed-recycling services, most — if not all — bags are unacceptable. No reusable shopping bags, glossy or glittery gift bags, chip bags, or biodegradable or compostable bags. “If the words ‘bag’ and ‘plastic’ are used together to describe the item, do not place it in the recycle cart or bin,” Pickens advises.
  • Plain brown or white paper bags may be an exception. “If the program accepts a variety of paper [magazines, newspapers, mail, cereal boxes, etc.], they should be able to take paper bags too. If the program is limited to a specific type of fiber, such as just corrugated cardboard, then they may not be accepted,” says Anne Germain of National Waste & Recycling Association. Pickens says that if your recycling program accepts plain paper, be sure to remove handles made of string or other non-paper material. And if the paper is greasy or dirty with food residue, put it in the trash. Food-contaminated paper can ruin an entire recycling batch.
  • “Biodegradable plastic bags are usually not acceptable [as recycling] anywhere and should be thrown away,” Germain says.
  • While standard plastic bags usually are not permitted in mixed recycling, some supermarkets and other businesses collect single-use plastic bags for recycling. Use Earth911 Recycling Search and enter your ZIP code to find a location near you.
woman shopping with reusable cloth and string bags
Plastic-free shopping in Mangwon Market, Seoul. Photo: Jung Park/Greenpeace

Disposable Bags & Shopping

When purchasing only a few items, Pickens tells the cashier, “No bag please.” It’s a simple waste-reducing practice that ideally becomes a habit, similar to telling your restaurant server, “No straw please.”

For heftier shopping hauls, reusable totes are preferable to single-use disposable bags. You may want to refine that selection further. Instead of plastic fabrics, use cotton shopping bags and cloth produce bags. Consider creating a “zero-waste bin” in your car where you keep your reusable bags and containers. After unloading your purchases, restock your zero-waste bin with empties so you don’t get caught without a reusable bag.

Some stores are ditching single-use plastic bags voluntarily. Other stores offering plastic bags may hear objections from shoppers. Customers Who Care, for example, is an organization encouraging Target to eliminate single-use plastic bags.

orange plastic garbage bag made with recycled materials
Garbage bag made with recycled materials. Photo: WasteZero

Disposable Bags & Garbage

Regular non-biodegradable garbage bags usually are best for household garbage going into a landfill.

Biodegradable garbage bags may sound more eco-friendly. However, at least for household trash, they don’t necessarily offer worthwhile environmental value. And there may be reasons to avoid them.

Some biodegradable bags may disintegrate before arriving at a landfill. “This results in the contents of the bag spilling out and causing a bigger mess and environmental issue,” says Alice Koehler, senior vice president of marketing for WasteZero, a firm that offers waste-reduction products and services.

Koehler offers several suggestions for an eco-responsible approach to household trash:

  • Use as few bags as possible. Fill bags completely and follow the tenets of reducing, reusing, and recycling as much as possible.
  • Use strong bags that won’t break. Loose waste in the form of litter and blowing trash is a bigger problem. It gets into our waterways and harms wildlife.
  • Buy bags made out of recycled content whenever possible.

If you’ve been buying biodegradable bags for your garbage, consider these additional perspectives on garbage bags and landfills.

  • “Waste disposed in trash can be placed in either a biodegradable or non-biodegradable bag. Neither will significantly break down in a landfill, so it really doesn’t matter which is used,” according to a spokesperson from Waste Management.
  • A spokesperson from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agrees, “If the assumption is that you are disposing of an item in a landfill, the choice of bag does not matter. A non-biodegradable item will not biodegrade regardless of the type of bag.”
  • Pickens says the style of bag doesn’t matter even if biodegrading occurs in a landfill. Regular non-biodegradable plastic bags often rip en route or inside a landfill, so garbage likely is loose anyway, he says.
woman putting disposable plastic trash bag in garbage can
Regular non-biodegradable garbage bags usually are best for household garbage going into a landfill. Image: Adobe Stock

Compostable & Biodegradable Bags

While regular disposable plastic bags are a prime source of plastic pollution, biodegradable bags are not necessarily planet-friendlier — whether discarded responsibly or littering the landscape.

“It is a misperception that biodegradable bags are safer for the environment if they are littered or escape into the environment,” says Ivy Schlegel, a research specialist with Greenpeace United States’ plastic team. “Many biodegradable bags will only break down fully in industrial composting systems, not if littered or in a landfill.”

Biodegradable pick-up bags for pet waste are popular, but not necessarily environmentally preferable, especially if dropped in with regular household garbage. But if you just leave the poop-filled bag outdoors, it’s litter. These bags may require very high temperatures or other requirements to biodegrade. Or they may biodegrade quickly, leaving pet waste exposed and bits of bag flying freely.

Other notes about biodegradable and compostable bags:

  • Some biodegradable bags may disintegrate if not stored properly — such as in the trunk of a vehicle in a hot climate — becoming waste before they are ever used.
  • Don’t put bags containing animal feces in your municipal compost bins unless your city specifically states they can process this type of waste. Most facilities cannot.
  • For composting programs, ask officials if compostable bags are acceptable before you put them in your bin with yard and food debris. Not all facilities are equipped to process them. “Only bags labeled as BPI certified compostable should be included with compostable materials if the collection facility accepts bags,” an EPA spokesperson says. “Biodegradable and compostable are not interchangeable terms.”

It’s hard to completely avoid disposable bags. But you can make a difference if you use a reusable bag whenever possible, recycle or discard disposable bags responsibly, or even skip the bag altogether if it’s not necessary.

This article was originally published on October 21, 2019.

By Patti Roth

Patti began her writing career as a staff writer for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Still based in Florida, Patti serves as editor for Fort Lauderdale on the Cheap. She regularly writes about environmental, home improvement, education, recycling, art, architecture, wildlife, travel and pet topics.