Fixing a (Plastic) Problem, Part 2 - Properly Recycle Your Plastic Bags


In my last post (Fixing a (Plasticky) Problem - Part 1), we looked at the harmful effects of plastic pollution on physical and environmental health--with a better understanding of the problem, it's time to shift gears to what we can do to help!

Let’s review a couple quick facts. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, in 2018, 35.7 million tons of plastics were generated in the U.S., with only about 8.5% (or 3 million tons) being recycled and 27 million tons ending up in landfills. The low recycling percentage isn’t just the fault of irresponsible consumers--many types of mixed plastics aren’t recyclable or require more labor and resources than are widely available in order to be recycled.

But, that’s where each one of us can have the biggest impact--being smarter plastic disposers. And since finding ways to cook and eat more sustainably is key for me in 2021, I wanted to start with something common to the American grocery shopping experience--the plastic bag!

According to the Earth Policy Institute, about a trillion single-use plastic bags are used every year. And about 100 billion of those plastic bags are used by U.S. residents alone (as of 2014)--that’s about 1 bag per person every day!

Now, I’m not going to tell you to stop using bags. They’re necessary, you can’t just carry each of your 50+ food items out of the grocery store! So let’s talk about what you CAN do:

Tip #1 - Find reusable alternatives

The best way to be more eco-friendly with plastic bags is, well, to use less of them! Many retailers sell reusable grocery or tote-like bags, and they’re usually pretty cheap--our reusable bags from Woodman’s (a regional grocery store chain in Wisconsin) were a dollar each! Plus, even retailers who don’t sell their own usually allow the use of other reusable bags in their checkout lines.

The other perks? Reusable bags are much more durable, and often bigger, reducing the number of bags you have to carry and the chance your eggs and milk end up splattered on the sidewalk!

Even better, there are a variety of cute-yet-practical options to meet whatever you need, like these: (check out the full list on Good Housekeeping!):

  • Freezable bags - freeze them the night before your shopping trip and your groceries will stay cold and fresh for hours.

  • Compact grocery bags - fold this bag up to conveniently clip it to your purse or stash it in your car so it’s there whenever you need it.

  • Rollable tote - if you're tired of struggling to carry all your groceries to your car, check out some wheeled options designed to pack and move food.

  • Trendy functional tote - I just love the look of this one, but the fact that it is structured and stays upright to prevent your groceries from shifting is a great benefit too!

But, even if you’re well-intentioned like me, there are going to be times when you’re halfway to the grocery store, think of your reusable bags sitting back home in your closet, and give a little “ahh sh**”. Or, you get to the store and see that they doesn’t allow you to bring in your own bags--this has become more common lately as stores don’t want employees handling shoppers’ bags as a COVID-19 precaution.

So when you DO have to use plastic bags, it’s ok, because...

Tip #2 - Most plastic bags are recyclable

Yes, you can recycle plastic bags, BUT (and this is a BIG BUT), not in the same way you typically toss cans and bottles into your recycling bin.

Tip #3 - Plastic bags (and other similar items) can’t be recycled in personal or curbside recycling bins.

Why? The standard machinery used at most recycling facilities can’t handle them. (With a few exceptions--there are a few cities where curbside recycling of plastic bags is allowed. Check here to see if yours is one of them.)

When plastic bags get mixed in with the rest of the single-sort recycling items (like bottles or cans), they get tangled up in the recycling machines. This means workers have to stop the machines and manually remove the bags. With the large number of plastic bags that end up in curbside recycling bins, this causes a massive waste of time and labor at recycling facilities, and can sometimes even break the machines permanently! What’s worse, the mangled plastic bags have to then be dumped in a landfill (booo).

NOTE: This also means you shouldn’t put your recyclables in plastic bags before tossing them in your recycling container!

So if you can’t toss your plastic bags in your recycling bin, how do you recycle them?

Tip #4 - Take them to a How2Recycle retailer

Here's the good news--many common nationwide stores have special containers designated for recycling plastic bags!

Single-use plastic bags have this How2Recycle Store Drop-off Label. Anything with this logo can be recycled using ANY How2Recycle container--so no, you don’t have to take the bags back to the retailer you got them from!

There’s other plastic items that should be recycled in this way too (and ONLY in this way, not in your recycling bin!!), like:

  • Newspaper bags

  • Plastic produce and bread bags

  • Packaging/wraps from bottled water cases, toilet paper, paper towel, diapers

  • Sandwich bags (like Ziploc bags)

  • Dry cleaning bags

  • Pillow packaging (those air-filled puffy things you put in packages to protect the contents while shipping)

  • Amazon shipping bags (for all you Prime peeps that get these packages once a week like me…)

Here’s a super helpful graphic, but as a rule of thumb, just look for the How2Recycle logo on plastic items before tossing them in. Important to note, however, is that plastic bags should be clean-ish and dry when recycled--if they get nasty from some leaky groceries, they’re better tossed in the trash. If they’ve got leftover food or crumbs, shake them out, and if they’re wet, let them dry before stuffing them into the bin.



Since the items from these containers undergo a separate recycling process that doesn’t clog standard machinery, it’s also important to note a few plastic items that CANNOT be recycled using these bins:

  • Again, dirty or wet plastic bags

  • Candy wrappers

  • Bags from pre-washed salad mixtures

  • Biodegradable bags

  • Pet food bags

Now, here’s the best part--these containers are found in most locations of very common nationwide chains, making the drop-offs so convenient! Retailers with the How2Recycle containers include (but definitely aren't limited to):

  • Target

  • Walmart

  • Kohl’s

  • Lowe’s

  • Local grocery store chains

Use this super helpful link to find the drop-off containers nearest to you. The containers are usually right inside the store’s front doors, but if you can’t find them, just ask the customer service desk.

Tip #5 - Find ways to make recycling convenient


If you're like me, you forget to do stuff all the time. If you’re also like me, you find yourself at Target just about every week. So when I end up with plastic or Ziploc bags or casings, I pile them together in my coat closet so I remember to take them to my car next time I leave the house. By keeping my stockpile of recyclables in my trunk, I can just pull them out and drop them in the containers next time I’m at Target!

The same applies to my reusable grocery bags--if I do my best to get them back into my car when I’m done using them, they’re always there for my next grocery run!

Alright, you’ve made it to the happy, this-is-what-makes-it-all-worthwhile moment...by using the How2Recycle containers, your used plastic bags can be turned into durable home building products (like pretty fences and decks!) and new plastic bags! But, even more importantly, you’re keeping them out of landfills and nature.

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What did you think? Did you already know most of this, or were you as surprised as I was to learn that plastic bags need to be recycled using special containers and processes? Let me know if you’d like to see more posts like this, or if you have any other eco-friendly living topics you’d like me to cover!


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