How to Recycle Plastic Bags

Most plastic bags are made from high-density polyethylene (#2 plastic), but the thinner-material bags (such as produce bags) are made from low-density polyethylene (#4 plastic). The recycling collection system is widely available, mostly through collection bins at grocery stores.

Plastic Bag Recycling Preparation

  1. Remove anything inside the bags, such as receipts, stickers, or crumbs. All these items will contaminate your bag load.
  2. Keep a bag collection bin in your house, such as one big garbage bag for all bags. Since they compact easily, you should be able to fit 50 to 100 plastic bags in one garbage bag.
  3. Make sure any bags you are recycling have a #2 or #4 plastic symbol on them. If not, you can’t be sure what plastic resin the bag is made from, so you’ll want to reuse it instead, before eventually throwing it away.

Why Recycle Plastic Bags

  • Plastic bags are among the most common sources of marine debris, where they can be mistaken as food by birds and fish.
  • Plastic bags don’t biodegrade, meaning it will take hundreds of years for them to decompose in a landfill.
  • Recycling a ton of plastic bags (about 450,000 bags) saves 11 barrels of oil.

Plastic Bag Recycling Process

Plastic bag recycling involves chipping the bags into pellets. While pellets can then be reprocessed into new bags, they will most likely be shipped to a company like Trex to be manufactured into plastic lumber.

Find Recycling Guides for Other Materials

Frequent Plastic Bag Recycling Questions

Can I recycle plastic bags in my curbside recycling program?

While there are a handful of curbside programs on both coasts that accept plastic bags curbside to keep them out of the oceans, you’ll definitely want to check with your local program before recycling plastic bags at the curb.

If you ask a recycling official in the U.S. what is the #1 source of contamination in a city’s curbside program, the answer is almost always “plastic bags.” People see the recycling symbol on the product and assume it can be included with other plastics. Unfortunately, bags are usually a nightmare for the machinery at recycling centers.

How do I find a bag collection bin?

All the national grocery retailers (such as Kroger, Safeway, Target and Walmart) and many smaller retailers offer bag recycling collections in their stores. The bins are usually located near the front entrance. Use the Recycling Search to find a location near you — just enter your ZIP code.

Which is better for the environment: paper or plastic bags?

When it comes to production, paper bags require 2.2 times more energy and 4.7 times more water to manufacture than plastic bags. Paper bags are also nine times heavier, meaning they use more energy to transport.

When it comes to disposal, both products are very easy to recycle, but paper bags are accepted in far more curbside programs. Paper bags are also an insignificant source of marine debris, and they biodegrade, unlike plastic.

If you’re looking for the most eco-friendly alternative, bring your own reusable bags to the store. They take more resources to produce than paper or plastic, but they should each last five to 10 years.

Does bag color matter for recycling?

Believe it or not, black plastic bags are harder to recycle and sometimes omitted from store collection bins. This is because the plastic is dyed and produces dark pellets, which limits the reprocessing options.

Are there any states that require plastic bag recycling?

No, but there are a number of state and local community laws related to plastic bags. The most common are either bag bans or bag taxes, while some have mandated that retailers who distribute bags must accept them for recycling. Most of the states and communities that pass plastic bag laws are located along a major waterway, and taxes are often used to fund water cleanups.

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