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All you need to know about plastic bag recycling

If you know your recycling, you probably already know that most communities don’t accept plastic bags in their curbside bins. And if you recycle like a pro, you may know that plastic bag recycling is a thing you can do at most local grocery stores, or superstores like Target or Walmart.

But here’s where it gets confusing. Does that mean just the bags from that store? Or can you recycle more? Most drop-off bag collections accept polyethylene film. This includes high-density polyethylene (HDPE or #2 plastic) and low-density polyethylene (#4 plastic or LDPE). It’s great if your bags have markings on them, but since most do not, it’s good to know some general guidelines.

Some plastics that can go into the bin are:

  • plastic shopping bags (from any store — remove receipts, etc.)
  • food packaging (Ziploc-type bags)
  • bread bags
  • plastic liners from cereal boxes (do not include if they tear like paper)
  • produce bags
  • dry cleaning bags (remove staples, receipts, hangars)
  • plastic newspaper wrapping
  • product wrapping (such as covers a case of water bottles, etc.)
  • bubble wrap and air pillows (popped)
  • plastic shipping envelopes (remove labeling)

ALL materials should be clean and dry. Not just a quick rinse — if your bags are not completely clean of food residue, they will contaminate the entire batch.

Other plastics need to go into the trash. These include:

  • frozen food bags
  • cereal box liners that tear like paper
  • biodegradable bags
  • pre-washed salad bags
  • candy bar wrappers
  • chip bags
  • six-pack rings

Why can’t I put bags in my bin?

Although a small handful of communities accept plastic in curbside bins, the vast majority do not. That’s because most facilities don’t have the personnel and equipment they would need to process them.

Rigid plastics, like gallon milk containers, are easily processed by machine. They are carried by conveyor belts and machine sorted. But throwing plastic bags into the mix wreaks havoc on these machines. The bags bend easily and get snagged in belts. They jam machinery and need to be cleared by hand.

The extra labor required to handle these problems and higher amount of equipment downtime makes your recycling program less profitable. That means that your government has less to spend on other programs.

The bottom line

You can recycle plastic bags and packaging, but don’t put them in your recycling bin! You’ll need to drop them off at your local grocery store. Check the lists above for guidelines on what is accepted and check with your drop-off location if you have any questions. Alternatively, if your city is a member of the Recycle Coach Network, download our app and we’ll hook you up with local information, including more tips and tricks for plastic bag recycling.

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