If your community recycles, chances are paper bags are fair game. But not all paper bags are as they seem. In fact, some aren’t even completely made from paper. Product packaging has gotten complicated. So complicated, that figuring out what's recyclable and what isn't can be difficult. Plastic-lined paper bags and their foil-lined cousins are no exception.

Lined paper bags are everywhere, yet there’s a good chance you haven’t noticed them. That’s how inconspicuous they are. They're on the shelves of most food stores, department stores, hardware stores, even in your local garden centre. You’ve likely got some in your house, too. If figuring out exactly what they are has you scratching your head, here are some popular examples to set you straight:

  • Foil-lined hot food bags (like the ones your hotdog comes in at a sporting event)
  • Poly-lined paper bags (food bags, airplane sickness bags, some shopping bags)
  • Multiwall bags (cement bags, pet food bags, flour and sugar bags)

These bags are often used for products that need to stay dry. That’s because on top of being durable, they’re also water resistant. While there’s no doubting their effectiveness, they’re almost always unrecyclable. Obviously, this isn't ideal. Especially if you’re consciously trying to reduce your waste output.

It might come as a surprise to learn that lined paper bags aren’t recyclable. After all, they’re mostly made of paper, a recyclable material. And their liners, materials like foil and polypropylene, are recyclable, too. While this is certainly true, it’s not the materials that make lined paper bags a recycling bin no-no. It’s how they’re assembled. For lack of a better word, the layers are fused together. As a result, they can't be separated and sorted into their proper streams. That's why they belong in the garbage.

Not all paper bags are lined with foil and plastic, though. Some sugar and flour bags contain multiple paper layers. They might be accepted in your community's recycling or organics program. To find out, try ripping the bag. If it’s a clean rip, chances are you don’t have to throw it in the garbage.

To maintain freshness and account for storing conditions, today's packaging is becoming less sustainable. The industry is shifting toward composite packaging, which contains a variety of materials. As mentioned, this type of product packaging is difficult to recycle. That’s why, if it’s something you can afford to do, try to purchase products that are sustainably packed.