Can I Recycle Plastic Bags in the Curbside Recycling Bin?

Professor Plastics

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There are so many recycling myths and misunderstandings floating around about what can be recycled, and how to do it, that this seems like a great time for a “recycling makeover.” Let’s begin the class…

The most important point is that recycling is decided on a community by community basis – so the list of items that can be put into recycling bins differs widely from community to community. Sometimes items collected in one community – say, pizza boxes – aren’t accepted at the community next door. Why? A whole host of reasons. Sometimes recyclers can’t find a good market to sell the material. Sometimes the recycling facility doesn’t have the equipment to handle or separate a material.

Take the pizza box example. Many recyclers don’t want them because grease, mozzarella, and pepperoni leftovers can attract hordes of insects and rodents to the recycling facility. And wet or really greasy cardboard may be too difficult to process in the recycling equipment. Yuck.

Read More: Does plastic decompose?

Fortunately, it is getting easier to recycle because more and more communities are moving toward “single stream” recycling – residents get one big rolling container for ALL recyclables with instructions on what to collect and what NOT to collect. With a single stream program in place, residents no longer have to separate recyclables into two or more bins and then carry them to the curb (not easy for many folks). By simplifying the collection process, the single stream rolling bin has proven to dramatically increase the amount of recyclables collected and to increase recycling rates. All good.

However, there also are many items generally not accepted in the curbside recycling bin. One example: while a few curbside programs accept plastic bags and wraps, most don’t. Why?

Most recycling facilities are set up to handle predominately rigid (hard) materials that are easier to separate using machinery: aluminum cans, glass bottles, plastic containers and lids, metal cans, cardboard/paper, etc. They generally don’t accept softer items such as your ready-for-retirement college sweatshirt, your beer stained carpeting or your stash of used grocery bags. It’s not that used plastic bags and wraps can’t be recycled into new materials – they simply require a different collection system and processing equipment than many curbside recycling programs provide.

So please don’t put plastic bags and wraps in your curbside bin if your recycling program says NO. But please DO recycle them. It’s easy. Here’s how…

More than 20,000 retail locations across the country – such as large grocery chains, home improvement stores, Walmart, Target, etc. – provide collection bins for these plastic bags and wraps, usually in the storefront close to the main entrance.

Since you picked up your grocery or shopping bags at these stores, why not just return them on your next trip? Many people collect them over time, along with dry cleaning film, wraps from paper towels, newspaper delivery bags and more, and then stuff them into the storefront bins. When these bags and wraps get recycled, they are turned into new products, such as backyard decking, fences, playground equipment, pipes… and even new plastic bags.

Do yourself, your community recycling program, and the environment a favor and check out to see where and what bags and wraps are accepted.

Class over.

Now go check out how to “makeover” your recycling efforts along with some of your dorm/apartment/home décor in Plastics Make it Possible’sRecycling Makeover.