How to Recycle Plastic Bags

An Introduction to Recycling Plastic Bags

Most of us, even if we use reusable shopping bags, end up having a collection of plastic bags. In the US, Americans go through 30 billion plastic bags every single year[1] and in the UK the average household goes through 300 plastic bags annually.[2] This is taking a huge toll on our environment; not only is the production of plastic bags harmful to the environment but the disposal of plastic bags is even more catastrophic and is creating issues such as the enormous plastic island that is floating in our ocean. Learn how you can start recycling plastic bags to reduce your impact on the environment.


Why recycle plastic bags?

Plastic bags are made of either low-density polyethylene (LDPE/LLDPE), also known as #4 plastic or high-density polyethylene film (HDPE), also called plastic #2.

  • Recycled into new products: When you recycled your used plastic bags, they become new products, which reduces the amount of fossil fuels used to make these products. Plastic bags can be made into plastic “lumber”, other plastic bags, pipes, trashcan liners, and much more.
  • Non-renewable resources: Plastic bags are made from petroleum, which is a non-renewable resource. We need to kick the petroleum habit, and recycling plastic bags is one way to do that. Americans use the equivalent of 12 billion barrels of oil every year in the form of plastic bags.
  • Landfill space: Plastic bags thrown into the landfill leave their mark by taking up space and requiring hundreds of years to break down (leaching chemicals in the process). Landfills are expensive to maintain and suitable locations are diminishing rapidly.
  • Wildlife hazard: Plastic bags drift very easily and end up in wild spaces, along beaches, and in natural water systems and the ocean where they pose significant health threats to animals. The 2008 International Coastal Clean-Up found 1.4 million plastic bags in 100 countries![2]

So there are many reasons for recycling plastic bags. Now… how do you do that?


Tips for recycling plastic bags

A good recycling strategy always starts by precycling your waste – preventing it before it starts. You may also want to consider reusing them by carrying them with you to the grocery store or donating them to a store to use. If you want to dispose of your plastic bags then use these steps to make sure they don’t land in the trashcan or in the wild.

Start by identifying what types of plastic bags can be recycled. Though many bags will come with the plastic resin number printed somewhere on them, some are not. Here’s a quick list of those that generally fall into the #2 or #4 plastics category:

  • Bread bags
  • Cereal box liners
  • Consumer product wrapping
  • Dry cleaning bags
  • Furniture wrapping
  • Newspaper bags
  • Plastic food storage bags (clean and dry, of course)
  • Plastic retail bags
  • Produce bags
  • Toilet paper, paper towel, and napkin wraps

There are, however, some types of plastic bags that are generally not accepted for recycling, including:

  • Cling or food wrap
  • Frozen food bags
  • Prewashed salad bags
  • Pre-packaged food bags
  • Soiled plastic bags
  • Corn plastic or bio-based plastic bags

These should either be reused if possible and then sent to the trash can.


Where and how to recycle plastic bags

Next, use these tips for organizing your plastic bag recycling efforts:

  • Collection: Make it easy to collect your plastic bags in one location in the home. Use a cloth bag, a box, or another plastic bag to organize the collection, keeping it neat and tidy until you’re ready to take them for recycling.
  • Clean-up: If your plastic bags were used to store food, be sure to clean and dry them. Additionally, remove any cardboard, string, or wooden handles and other add-ons.
  • Return them to whence they came: Many grocery stores will accept their own plastic bags for recycling. See if your local grocer has a collection site in the entrance to the store.
  • Take them to the recycling center: Give your recycling center or municipal waste disposal office a call to find out if they take #2 and #4 plastics for recycling. If so, add a bin to your regular recyclable collection center and either put them at the curb on recycling day or take them with your other recyclables.
  • Locate a recycling business: If you’re not able to recycle your plastic bags with your other recyclables, look around to see if there are any local recycling centers that would accept them from you. Plastic Bag has some great resources for this purpose.




1  San Francisco Bag Ordinance Offers Consumers Way Out of False Choice. (2007, March 27). Retrieved January 14, 2011, from Natural Resources Defense Council:

2  Go Plastic Bag Free. (n.d.). Retrieved January 14, 2011, from MCS Clean Seas and Beaches from

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