Plastic Bags Aren't As Recyclable As You Might Think — What You Should Know


Oct. 24 2023, Updated 3:46 p.m. ET

Person carrying plastic bag at grocery store.
Source: iStock

The Gist:

  • Plastic bags such as those from grocery stores can be recycled, but you cannot toss them into your regular recycling bin.
  • You can, however, recycle plastic bags a few ways, including at the grocery store!
  • If you decide not to recycle your plastic bags you can also reuse them in the household.
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Whether it's because you remember to bring your reusable bag from home, opt for paper, or simply toss a small item or two into your purse or backpack, turning down plastic is picking up speed. Some cities and countries are even banning plastic bags entirely. That said, if you're living in an area where plastic bags are the norm, you will eventually need to figure out what to do with them.

Which leads us to the question: Can you recycle plastic bags or not?

The answer is a little more complicated than it seems. Keep reading for everything you need to know about recycling plastic bags, plus, some ideas for reusing bags if you cannot recycle them.

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Man carrying two grocery bags of plastic.
Source: iStock

So, can you recycle plastic bags?

Yes and no. You cannot place your single-use plastic bags (such as those from the grocery store or pharmacy) into the curbside recycling bins that go out every week. Why? The short answer is because this kind of plastic can get stuck in recycling equipment, per Plastic Makers, and then force machinery to shut down.

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You should also avoid putting your other recycling items (cardboard, glass, etc.) in a plastic bag and adding them to your curbside bin — the bag will only end up in a landfill. This phenomenon is called "wish-cycling," per Instacart, and it doesn't help the recycling process either.

Luckily, many big box stores and businesses do recycle plastic bags and allow you to drop them off. To do this, just gather all of your plastic bags into one larger one, tie it off, and drop it off. This cuts down on clutter and stops the annoyance of gathering and losing all the bags separately. You can usually include other plastics in here too, like ziplock bags, bread bags, and items with plastic film, but it's always best to check first which collection bins accept what.

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In New York City, for example, businesses must provide plastic and film recycling if they have 10,000 or more square feet of retail space or chains that have 5 or more stores with over 5,000 square feet of retail space.

Groceries wrapped in single use plastic bags.
Source: iStock
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There are a few ways you can reuse old plastic bags to make the most of them.

Thankfully, if you're creative enough, plastic bags can be reused for a number of purposes, including:

  • trash can liners
  • litterbox liners
  • picking up dog waste
  • stuffing boxes while moving
  • protecting packages
  • protecting plants in your garden from frost
  • storing other bags

And, finally, if you're in a position where you need to accept a plastic bag with your purchase, ask for a single bag, not double, to reduce the amount of plastic bags you receive.

This article, originally published on July 19, 2018, has been updated.

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