box of used disposable plastic bags

Ideally, we should avoid single-use plastic bags and plastic film. Failing that, we should reuse them as much as possible. But not all bags are reusable. And most can be reused only so many times before they tear. Plus, plastic wrap and plastic film are near-impossible to reuse around the house. (For the rest of this article, I’ll use the term “plastic bags” to refer to both plastic film and plastic wrap.)

Eco-conscious folks don’t want to put them in the trash, if avoidable — and we certainly don’t want to strew them on the streets or grounds, where they will foul the environment and endanger animals, birds, and fish.

You can, thankfully, recycle many — though not all! — of your plastic bags. But you can’t put them into the same recycling bins where you put paper, cans, bottles, etc.

Putting plastic bags in the wrong bin contaminates the other recyclable materials and can create dangers for recycling workers because the thin plastic film can become tangled in machinery and jam equipment.

Thankfully, grocery stores and big retail stores host collection bins where you can drop off plastic bags for recycling, though these programs were paused due to COVID-19 and, recently, collection bins managed by have come under scrutiny for failing to follow through on their recycling promise. Be sure to ask your grocer where the bags they collect are sent.

Numerous organizations help promote responsible plastic bag recycling, through labeling, education, and other efforts. And companies, including Trex, collect and turn bales of collected bags into composite lumber for use in decks, fences, benches, and more, or into smaller pellets that can be used to make crates, shipping pallets, and other objects.

Recyclable Plastic Bags, Wraps, & Film

According to the American Chemical Council’s Plastic Film Recycling site, “Plastic film — also known as plastic film packaging — is soft, flexible polyethylene (PE) packaging such as grocery, bread, zip-top, and dry cleaning bags. It’s also the wrap around many products including paper plates, napkins, bathroom tissue, diapers, and more.”

Some plastic bags are labeled with the plastic resin number used to make it, typically with a “2” or “4” or even a graphic such as How2Recycle’s, shown below. Most of these should be recyclable. For everything else, however, you need to look and think to decide. Some won’t even be plastic!

How2Recycle label
Some bags may display the How2Recycle label. Source: How2Recycle

Unlike colored plastic containers that create problems for the optical sensors in sorting machinery, color isn’t a concern for consumers recycling their plastic bags, since these bags aren’t machine-sorted. “There are no color limitations on the plastic film that can be recycled at Trex collection locations,” according to Trex.

Examples of plastic bags, wraps, and film that can be recycled, according to Plastic Film Recycling, include:

  • Retail, carryout, produce, newspaper, bread, and dry cleaning bags (clean, dry, and free of receipts and clothes hangers)
  • Zip-top food storage bags (clean and dry)
  • Plastic shipping envelopes (remove labels), bubble wrap, and air pillows (deflate)
  • Product wrap on cases of water/soda bottles, paper towels, napkins, disposable cups, bathroom tissue, diapers, and female sanitary products
  • Furniture and electronic wrap
  • Plastic cereal box liners (but if it tears like paper, do not include)
  • Any film packaging or bag that has the How2Recycle label

Don’t Include These in Your Plastic-Bags-to-Recycle Pile

Including the wrong stuff defeats the entire purpose of recycling plastic bags. This includes both the wrong bags and the potentially-OK bags that have disqualifying problems.

Recycling rules can vary from city to city, state to state, and even store to store, so do confirm your local recycling requirements.

DO NOT INCLUDE any of the following in your load of plastic bags and film to recycle

  • Biodegradable or compostable bags. When mixed with other bags, the additives used in these bags can contaminate the plastic produced unusable in new products.
  • Plastic bags used for packaged frozen foods, which contain food preservatives that contaminate the other recyclable bags in the batch.
  • Bags that aren’t completely dry: The water interferes with proper processing.
  • Bags that aren’t completely free of food residue or other contaminants: If there are a few crumbs, you can rinse it clean, and make sure you dry it. But if there’s, say, peanut butter smear, throw it out
  • Pre-washed salad mix bags
  • Six-pack rings
  • Plastic bags, film, or wrap that:
    • are stiff rather than stretchable – if you can’t poke your thumb into it and feel it stretch, don’t include it
    • tear like paper
    • crinkle loudly when you scrunch it up in your hand, for example, candy wrappers, snack bags, or flower bouquet wrap
    • are silvery or metallic, such potato chip bags and printer ink cartridges bags

Prepping Your Plastic Bags for Recycling

For those bags that can be recycled, take the time to make sure they are clean, dust-free, and dry. Remove any paper labels or stickers; if you can’t peel off a label, cut it off. Be sure to check plastic shopping bags and remove receipts before dropping them in the bin. Remove any zip-lock and hard-plastic slider seals.

Some places may be OK with leaving labels, stickers, and zip tops, but you can’t go wrong by removing them. See Earth911’s “How to Recycle Plastic Bags” for more guidance.

Finding Locations To Recycle Your Plastic Bags

Many supermarkets and other stores have plastic bag recycling drop bins. This includes many, but not all, locations of Home Depot, Lowes, Star Market, Target, Wegmans, and Whole Foods. You can also ask your town/city hall or local recycling department. The local plastic bag recycling guidance should be posted on the collection bin.

Usually, you can find locations near you by doing online look-ups. Start with Earth911’s Recycling Search. Recycling rules and locations are apt to change. So if a listed plastic bag drop-off location isn’t someplace you were going anyway, call first to make sure they still collect plastic bags for recycling. If you find a location has ended its collection bin service, a new location, or that the rules have changed, please tell Earth911 so we can update our listings to help your neighbors.

Once you get the hang of what’s okay and what’s not and have found a store or two where you can drop off your plastic bags, all you need to do is designate a place in your home to accumulate the bags. Then, periodically — probably about once a month — bring them with you to the store. Not hard at all. Your planet, including the ecosystem and its critters, will thank you.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on October 7, 2020. It was updated in October 2023.

By Daniel Dern

Daniel P. Dern is a freelance technology and business writer, primarily about computer/Internet technology, including related environmental aspects of heat/cooling/power, manufacturing, and "end-of-life" recycling. His articles have appeared in the Boston Globe, Byte, ComputerWorld, IEEE Spectrum, and TechTarget. He also writes science fiction and kids stories (some are both), doing his best not to recycle plotlines.