The Final Word On Plastic Bag Recycling

We get a lot of questions about plastic bags - questions about whether a certain size, shape, or color of plastic bag might be recyclable.  

Via email from JS: 

“I see posted not to use plastic bags for recycling. I recently purchased special Glad Recycling Trash bags. It says they are translucent blue plastic bags that are acceptable for use in applicable Municipal Recycling. Can you confirm I can use these in the city of Chicago?” 

No wonder there's so much confusion - some plastic bags are even called 'recycling' bags.  

 Soft plastic? Hard no.

Regardless of what the packaging may state, no plastic bags of any kind are accepted in the recycling program. None of them. Dry cleaner bags, plastic envelopes, and plastic wrap are not accepted either.  

A simple recycling rule to remember: Soft plastic? Hard no.

Soft plastics aren’t recyclable in Chicago’s blue cart recycling program (or in most recycling programs) because they’re difficult to sort. They cling to other recyclables and wrap around sorting equipment at the recycling facility which is dangerous for workers and costly for the program.

Why 'recycling' bags exist 

Here are two situations when 'recycling' bags make sense, there are sure to be more. 

Multi-floor commercial buildings commonly collect trash and recycling together in one cart for efficiency.  Down at the dumpsters, the blue bags are chucked into the recycling container, the other bags go in the trash.

Some municipalities, including NYC, require recycling to be collected in transparent plastic  'recycling' bags when recycling bins or dumpsters aren't available.  

Recycle plastic bags and more at local retailers

Because soft plastics are difficult to sort out of the household recycling stream, many local retailers provide access to a free, drop-off recycling programs.  Target, Best Buy, Walmart, Walgreens, Mariano’s and Jewel-Osco all participate; look for the Plastic Bag Recycling bins located near the front doors.

Generally these recycling programs accept: clean bags and wrap made from #2 or #4 plastic film. They do not accept: stretchy food wrap, frozen food bags, cellophane, or pre-washed salad bags because of incompatible chemical make-ups. 

Also  accepted in Plastic Bag Recycling Programs at local stores:

  1. BUBBLE WRAP - Popped or not, recycle it.

  2. PLASTIC MAILERS - Cut off paper labels.

  3. PLASTIC SHIPPING BAGS - Cut off paper labels. 

  4. AIR PILLOWS - Pop them to save space. 

  5. SANDWICH BAGS - Plastic zippers bags are okay too.

  6. DRY CLEANER BAGS - Remove paper, hangers, etc.

Important caveat

Make sure you're only recycling plastic film. Before dropping off a bundle of plastics, open the bags to check for lingering paper receipts, shake out crumbs, and cut off paper shipping labels. 

For these free recycling programs to remain sustainable, the plastic we contribute needs to be sparkling clean. 

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