Can Plastic Bags Be Recycled?

A common question that we receive from residents in the RethinkWaste service area is, can plastic bags be recycled? Well, the question and answer are a bit more complicated than it appears. Unfortunately, plastic bags are not accepted in your blue recycling cart or bin at home, and instead belong in the landfill. Although plastics bags can definitely be reused! If reuse is not a possibility, there is another option. You may have seen or heard of a plastic bag drop-off program. Perhaps you’ve seen a box that says “Recycle Your Plastic Bags Here!” or something similar, around your local grocery store or even at the mall. It’s with these drop-off programs that soft and flimsy plastic can be given a new life.

Plastic Bags are NOT Accepted in the Recycling

After residents learn that soft flimsy plastic is not accepted in the recycling, a typical follow-up question is “Why not?” Let us elaborate on why we do NOT accept soft flimsy plastic in our recycling. All materials placed into recycling carts and bins are processed at our Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), which is a part of the Shoreway Environmental Center in San Carlos. At the MRF, recyclables are sorted into like materials by machines and workers. Many of our machines use rolling disks to sort the recyclables. One kind in particular, the paper screens, are prone to getting jams. As the discs spin, any soft flimsy plastic that was mistakenly placed in the recycling, such as plastic bags, gets wrapped around the discs, reducing the effectiveness of the machine.

Throughout the day as the machine processes all the materials, more and more soft plastic gets caught around these discs (see image to the right). Eventually there is so much soft plastic wrapped around the discs that the paper screen can’t function properly, which causes a jam. When a jam occurs, the machine and facility are shut down and a worker must cut out all of the plastic by hand, which can be time consuming and dangerous. For this reason, we don’t accept any soft plastic in the recycling. If you want to dispose of your soft and flimsy plastic at home, it must be placed in your black landfill bin.

Plastic Bag Drop-Off Programs

Although plastic bags cannot be recycled in our facility, there is another option. Throughout the RethinkWaste service area there are many locations that have a plastic bag drop-off program. You can bring your plastic bags to the location, drop them off in the specific bin, and from there they will be processed and recycled.

One reason these drop-off programs are effective is that they typically have little to no contamination. Contamination is when an item mistakenly gets put into the wrong bin. For example, straws belong in the garbage, but if they are placed in the recycling or compost, the straws are the contamination. One of the biggest forms of contamination in plastic bag drop-off programs are receipts that people simply forgot to remove from a bag or mistook the plastic bag drop-off bin for a garbage bin. This type of plastic bag drop-off program is called “source separation” of materials. . Source separation is when you sort out one material (in this case plastic bags) from the rest of your waste at home. Source separation helps lessen contamination in plastic bag drop-off bins and ensures the material is clean for recycling. If you choose to recycle your plastic bags through one of these drop-off programs, be sure to only bring your soft and flimsy plastics and don’t forget to remove any receipts! To find a plastic bag drop-off location near you, take a look at our plastic bag guide.