What’s the Right Way to Recycle Plastic Bags and Wraps (AKA Plastic Film Packaging)?

No Bowling Balls Please…
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plastic film recycling items

Can I recycle plastic bags? Can I recycle plastic shipping packaging? Can I recycle plastic wraps? Can I recycle plastic bowling balls?

Yes. Yes. Yes. No 🙄 (although if interested, see more down below).

Flexible plastic bags and wraps – often called plastic film packaging – are recycled differently than bottles and containers.

Plastic bags and wraps DO NOT go in most curbside recycling bins.
Plastic bags and wraps DO go to participating retail store recycling bins.

If you’re thinking, “Wait, what?” keep scrolling, because here’s a Q & A about the right way to recycle plastic film packaging…

NOTE: All recycling is local and there may be differences from town to town, so always check with your local recycling entity to make sure you’re recycling right.

Why Can’t I Put Plastic Film Packaging in My Curbside Recycling Bin?

Short answer: Because it gums up the works.

Longer answer: Most recycling facilities are designed to handle plastic bottles and containers, plus a few other types of plastic products. Workers and sortation equipment can readily identify and separate the bottles and containers into sellable streams of plastic. These plastics then can be recycled for brand new uses.

Stretchy plastic bags and wraps often get stuck in recycling equipment. Workers then have to shut down the machinery and yank out the stretchy stuff. It’s a waste of time, money and material.

But… If I Put Plastic Film Packaging in My Curbside Bin, Won’t It Get Recycled?

Short answer: Not yet in most locations (see more below for future plans).

Longer answer: We’ve all heard stories about how some plastic doesn’t get recycled at recycling centers and winds up going to a landfill. These plastic items typically are not wanted or accepted by the recycling center, meaning the center cannot process them or there’s not an established market for the material. The center has no choice but to dispose of the material. Unwanted plastic film packaging that winds up at recycling centers typically falls into this category. It can be recycled … just not at most recycling centers that collect materials from curbside.

So… Can I Put My Recyclables in a Plastic Bag and Toss It All into My Curbside Bin?

Short answer: No (or very likely not. Again, check with your local recycling entity).

Longer answer: Like other plastic bags and wraps, that plastic trash bag holding your recyclables gums up the works (see above). Most recyclers would prefer that you toss all recyclables into your curbside bin loose (i.e., not in a bag). It makes it much easier to see and sort the recyclable materials. Plastic bags need to be ripped open and discarded at recycling facilities. Another waste of time, money and material.

If you do collect your recyclables in a plastic trash bag, dump the recyclables out of the bag and reuse the bag if you can.

Here are 9 simple tips to recycle more plastic.

OK. If I Can’t Put My Plastic Film Packaging in My Curbside Bin, Can I Still Recycle It?

Short answer: Yes, at participating retail stores.

Longer answer: There are thousands of retail stores and drop-off centers across this great nation of ours that accept plastic film packaging for recycling. You likely have seen the recycling bins outside/inside many large retailers, such as Walmart, Target, Kroger’s, Safeway, and more. These retailers collect plastic film packaging from consumers like you and from back-of-the-store packaging, as well. They back haul this plastic film to multiple businesses that recycle it into new products.

What Plastic Film Packaging Can I Recycle?

Short answer: Lots of bags and wraps made out of polyethylene plastic (I.e., #2 and #4).

Longer answer: Companies that recycle plastic film packaging focus primarily on stretchy bags and wraps that are made from various types of plastic that belong to the polyethylene family. (Yes, that sounds like a joke about a girl named Polly…)

You don’t really need to know about the different families of plastic to pitch in and recycle. Here’s more information on how to recycle plastic film packaging at thousands of drop-off locations.

How Can I Make Sure That My Plastic Bag or Wrap Is Recyclable?

Short answer: It’s easy – you can just look it up.

Longer answer: Here’s a great resource to help you figure out what plastic film packaging is recyclable… and to help you find a participating retail store.

And here’s a preview of which plastic film packaging you typically can recycle in retail store bins.

Types of plastic film you can recycle.

What to Bring to a Store Recycling Bin

  • Plastic bags
  • grocery bags
  • retail bags
  • dry cleaning bags
  • bread bags
  • sandwich bags
  • freezer bags
  • produce bags
  • zipper bags
  • newspaper bags

Plastic overwrap from

  • beverages cases
  • paper towels
  • bathroom tissue
  • diapers

Plastic shipping packaging for home delivery (remove any paper labels)

  • shipping pillows
  • bubble envelopes (if they’re made of only plastic)
  • packing bubbles (usually called Bubble Wrap®)
  • plastic shipping bags

woman packing a shipment

Here’s some plastic film packaging that may seem recyclable but typically is not. At least today.

What NOT to Bring to a Store Recycling Bin

  • prewashed salad mix bags
  • degradable bags
  • cling wrap
  • candy and snack packaging

 

But What If I’m Still Uncertain Whether I Can Recycle a Plastic Bag or Wrap?

Short answer: When in doubt, leave it out.

Longer answer: If you’ve done your research and you’re still uncertain about what to recycle, do not guess. Leave that confusing packaging out of the recycle bin.

We all want to recycle as much as possible. And much of the plastic film packaging we use today can be recycled. But putting non-recyclables into a recycling bin is much worse than tossing out a little bit of packaging – non-recyclables can contaminate the rest of the recyclables. As noted above, it’s a waste of time, money and material.

Does the Plastic Film Packaging Need to Be Clean?

Short answer: Yes.

Longer answer: Recyclers want recyclable materials that they can process and sell. That’s their business. They do not want food. Or liquids. Or anything that’s not accepted for recycling at their center.

So, simply clean and dry your plastic film packaging before dropping it into the store recycling bin.

What Does Plastic Film Get Recycled Into?

Short answer: Mostly durable lumber and new packaging.

Longer answer: One primary use for recycled plastic film packaging is durable plastic or composite lumber for decks, fences, and other outdoor uses. One of the largest recyclers of plastic bags/wraps is Trex. A 500-square foot composite Trex deck contains about 140,000 recycled plastic bags, according to the company!

Other companies use recycled plastic to make new packaging… that often can be recycled again.

plastic bag turning into chair.

Emerging advanced recycling technologies break down plastic into its building blocks for reuse as brand-new plastic. This will greatly expand the ways to reuse plastic film packaging.

So… Will We Ever Be Able to Recycle Plastic Film Packaging in Our Curbside Bins?

Short answer: We’re working on it.

Longer answer: Multiple programs have demonstrated novel ways to collect plastic film packaging at curbside. For example, residents in a Chicago suburb can recycle plastic film packaging curbside, thanks to a program launched by Dow and Waste Management. This program is slated to scale up and reach 8% of U.S. households by 2025 – it could become the wave of the future for plastic film packaging recycling.

In addition, new sortation techniques and technologies should allow us to capture much more plastic film packaging (and other plastics) from households. Coupled with advanced recycling, these innovations will help America’s Plastic Makers achieve the goal of reusing, recycling or recovering 100% of U.S. plastic packaging by 2040.

Read about the missing link in plastic recycling.

That’s All There Is to It?

Short answer: Yes

Longer answer: While opportunities for plastics recycling are growing and evolving, this Q & A outlines the right way now to recycle plastic bags and wraps – AKA plastic film packaging. We’ll update as needed. Please pitch in!

bowling balls

And… What About Those Bowling Balls?

Ah, yes… bowling balls. Most recycling centers do not accept them, which unfortunately doesn’t stop some people from tossing them in recycling bins. In some cases, the heavy balls caused extensive damage to recycling equipment.

Instead, Pinterest has some ideas on what to do with them. Or maybe you can donate them.

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Repurpose. Donate. All better than wasting valuable resources.