When you head out to do a little shopping, what do you put your items in when you check out?
Some people carry a reliable stock of reusable bags but most rely on plastic bags to tote around their new items. Whether you needed to get groceries or a new handbag, plastic bags are a common part of the shopping experience.
However, what should you do with them once you have your goods conveniently at home?
Can plastic bags be recycled?
Most types of plastic bags found in supermarkets at the checkout lane can be recycled. Other types of plastic such as produce bags or Ziploc bags can also be recycled. Make sure to take them to the appropriate type of facility.
What Kind of Plastic Bags Can be Recycled?
Think about how many different types of plastic bags you come into contact with daily.
You pack up your groceries in plastic bags, you portion out your snacks in Ziploc bags, and your steam your frozen veggies in their plastic bag.
It only makes sense that you might wonder which of these items is recyclable and which ones are headed directly to the landfill:
What Kind of Plastic Are They Made Of?
The first thing you should do is look to see if your plastic bags are marked with what type of plastic they are.
Most plastic bag recycling programs accept polyethylene film which comes in two main varieties.
The first is high-density polyethylene, sometimes abbreviated as HDPE or as #2 plastic. The other is low-density polyethylene, sometimes referred to as LDPE or #4 plastic.
Both of these types of plastic can be placed in a drop off box wherever plastic bags are accepted.
What to Do with Unmarked Plastic:
Unfortunately, you might be missing out on a great opportunity to recycle some of your other bags.
Many are not marked, which leads people to toss them directly in the trash. However, you can recycle many other types of plastic bags as long as you are careful to clean them first.
For example, both bread bags and Ziploc bags are recyclable. All you have to do is make sure that they are clean, dry, and completely free of all food residue.
If you cannot get the food residue out of the bags, then you will not want to recycle them. It could contaminate the entire bunch of plastic.
Other Plastic & Your Options:
As far as the plastic bags that contain your favorite frozen foods and vegetables, these cannot be recycled.
The plastic bags that line the freezer aisle at your grocery store are filled with additives and extra layers that serve to preserve the food until you consume it.
These chemical additions can contaminate a batch of recycled materials, so be sure to toss them elsewhere.
There really are no great ways to recycle these types of bags, so it best to avoid them whenever possible.
Keep in mind that these types of plastic bags cannot be tossed in your blue recycling bin that you set out curbside.
These bags can only be recycled at receptacles located in your nearby grocery stores or other retail outlets.
What Happens to Plastic Bags That Cannot Be Recycled?
Many people do not take the call to recycle seriously.
They may find that they cannot be bothered to bring their old plastic bags to the proper recycling receptacle. Alternatively, they may have plastic bags like those that contain frozen foods that cannot be recycled.
In both circumstances, we have to ask the question of what happens to these plastic bags when they are not recycled?
As you might imagine, it is not a pretty picture.
Plastic bags are not biodegradable so they will take hundreds of years to decompose when stashed away in a landfill. This can spell trouble for the environment.
Plastic bags are one of the most common forms of marine debris, fooling fish and other sea life into thinking they are food.
The birds and other wildlife who are impacted by these plastic bags are practically endless.
What Should I Do With Old Plastic Bags?
Because you probably do a healthy amount of shopping, the odds are that you have quite a stash of plastic bags already sitting around your house.
What are you supposed to do with these colorful plastic bags that seem to serve no purpose any longer?
The good news is that you can get quite creative with how you use these types of bags, extending their lifespan and helping the environment in the process:
1. Use Them to Pack Fragile Objects:
The first thing you can do with old plastic bags is to use them when shipping packages. They can form a type of protection for your fragile items such as glass bowls.
This is a cheap or free alternative to bubble wrap which can be hard on the environment. If you are moving, this is also a great tip for packing boxes.
You might want to start saving up your plastic bags in the months leading up to your move if you plan to do this.
2. Use for Gifting & Stuffing:
If you have a little time on your hands and a holiday is around the corner, then you might want to consider taking a few of your plastic bags to shred them.
This can create great filler grass for Easter baskets and other gift baskets.
It not only cushions your gift and helps to keep fragile items from breaking, but it is a cute alternative to thin tissue paper.
Plastic bags are also a great and soft alternative to purchasing stuffing! Instead of buying fluffy pillows for your patio furniture, which can get wet or dirty, consider making your own.
With a little fabric and some quick sewing, you can put together a brand new look for your patio. Stuff the pillows with plastic bags to make them look full and plump!
3. Use as Small Trash Bags:
Many people use their old plastic bags as trash can liners for small trash cans around their home.
They are great for holding small items like those you might encounter in a bathroom trash can or a trash can that you keep in your vehicle.
When you are done using them or the trash can is full, the handles can be easily tied together and tossed in your outdoor trash can for the pickup day.
4. Discard Grease and Cooking Oil:
Another unique use for plastic bags to discard old grease or cooking oil.
These items should never be poured down the kitchen sink because it can lead to buildup that eventually causes difficult clogs. Instead, take a plastic bag and pour the grease inside.
This keeps the mess contained and saves your kitchen from a disaster.
5. Kitty Litter & Litterbox Liner:
A similar trick is to use plastic bags to line your cat’s litter box.
Provided that the box is small enough and the bag is large enough, this could be one way to make your life significantly easier.
You will be able to simply pull the entire bag off the litter pail and toss it in the garbage with no scrubbing required.
6. Use for Cleaning Difficult Areas:
Plastic bags can also help you with tricky cleaning tasks.
One of the more prominent issues that people have with cleaning their bathrooms is how to get their showerhead clean. Now, you can do it with ease.
Pour a little bit of vinegar and some dish soap into a bag and wrap it around your shower nozzle with a rubber band. Let it sit and soak for some time to clear away buildup.
7. Store Electronics to Keep Them Dry:
If you’re someone who spends a lot of time out at the beach or by the pool, you might want to be careful about your electronics getting wet.
Having a speaker is great so that you can enjoy all your favorite music, but getting sand in the crevices can lead to an early demise.
Instead, you should wrap your electronics up in a plastic bag to protect them.
8. Gardening & Mulch:
Some people prefer to spend their time in the garden, and plastic bags can work for you here too!
Underneath your mulch, you can place a thin layer of plastic bags to help keep weeds and unwanted plants from growing.
This is a free way to save you some backbreaking labor later on in the planting season.
9. Recycle and Donate!
If you really have no use for your plastic bags anymore, then you should recycle them at a local grocery store or retail outlet.
This allows them to be used to manufacture new products and keeps them out of landfills!
As long as you avoid dumping your plastic bags in the landfill, you are doing your part to help out the environment.
Can I Recycle Plastic Bags at Home?
Unfortunately, you probably can’t recycle your plastic bags at home.
This is one item that you do not want to toss in the blue curbside recycling bin. Most local recycling centers are not set up or equipped to handle the type of plastic used to make plastic bags.
Instead, you should take them back to the store. Many grocery stores and national retail chain stores offer plastic bag collection for recycling purposes.
Stores like Target, Walmart, Safeway, and Whole Foods all offer convenient recycling kiosks for plastic bags at the entrances to their stores.
Do Grocery Stores Really Recycle Plastic Bags?
You might be wondering whether your local grocery store really does recycle the plastic bags they collect.
The good news is that there is a lot of research out there to help you find out where to send your unwanted plastic bags.
Not only do they take care of your unwanted plastic bags, but they also have taken initiatives to limit their plastic waste.
If you have been searching for information on major retails chains, here is everything you need to know:
Like many major chain retailers, Target does have a program that allows you to bring in unwanted plastic bags for recycling.
Most locations have kiosks located near the front doors that are dedicated to plastic bags, glass, plastic, aluminum, and various electronics respectively.
However, this is just the first step that they take toward making plastic bags eco-friendlier for their customers.
The bags that Target offers customers at the checkout are made from 40 percent recycled content. This helps you to rest assured that what you are doing is as good for the environment as can be.
Along with these bags, they also sell a nice selection of reusable bags. Customers are offered a five-cent discount for each reusable bag that they present at the checkout.
Much like Target, Safeway stresses that its customers should make the transition from using plastic bags to their reusable alternatives.
They believe that the best way to reduce the impact that plastic bags have on the environment is to avoid using them altogether.
However, they do still offer this as an option at their checkout. They have a goal of reducing plastic bag use by 50 percent over five years.
At the entrance to every Safeway store, there are plastic bag recycling depots.
The bags are collected and then sent to the Trex Company where they are made into long-term use items such as plastic decking, fencing, railing, or various types of furniture.
3. Whole Foods
Whole Foods has made a major commitment to stopping the unnecessary use of plastic bags that end up in landfills.
Since 2008, they have not used single-use plastic bags at their checkout. Everything is designed to be used more than one time to extend the lifespan of items and minimize what ends up in landfills and waterways.
For those who have a stash of plastic bags at home, all Whole Foods locations have kiosks that allow you to recycle your plastic shopping bags and produce bags.
If the plastic is marked with either a two or a four, you can also recycle other types of plastic such as dry cleaning or newspaper bags.
Not to be left out, Walmart also has a long list of initiatives that it is taking to reduce the use of plastic bags and packaging in its retail chain.
They aim to use 100 percent recyclable, reusable, or industrially compostable packaging for private brand packaging by 2025. All products should be labeled with the “How2Recycle” label by the same year.
Many exciting changes and advancements are coming from Walmart in the years ahead.
Currently, they are already offering some initiatives that inspire customers to recycle. For example, stores offer access to in-store plastic bag and film recycling bins.
They recycle shrink wrap in most markets, offer low-cost and high-quality alternatives for single-use plastic products, and encourage suppliers to use the How2Recycle labels.
Can You Recycle Ziploc Bags?
Most people have to deal with plastic shopping bags regularly, but they don’t think much about the other types of plastic bags they come in contact with regularly.
Ziploc bags are a beloved item that many people use to portion their foods, store their sandwiches, and otherwise make it more convenient to pack a lunch or store leftovers.
Are these favorite plastic bags recyclable?
Simply put, yes, these types of bags are usually recyclable. There is just one catch. You have to make sure that they are completely free from all food debris.
This can be difficult to do, depending on what you stored in them. Messy meals and snacks must be washed away before you can toss these in with your other plastic bags.
All plastic must be free of food, washed, and dried before Ziploc bags can be recycled.
How Long Does it Take for Plastic Bags to Decompose?
Unfortunately, plastic bags do not really decompose.
They can take hundreds of years to break down which is why they often end up in waterways.
Whenever possible, you should make every effort to recycle your plastic bags and avoid storing them in landfills where they will never decompose.
Maria is the founder of GoDownsize. While studying architecture in Denmark she became fascinated with designing living spaces for boats, tiny houses, RVs, and other small spaces.
She mainly writes about space optimization, interior design, and downsizing. She’s also in charge of our YouTube channel. Read more about Maria here.