Recycling Q&A: Why Can't I Put Recyclables In Plastic Garbage Bags?

Recycling Q&A: Why Can’t I Put Recyclables In Plastic Garbage Bags?

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series of recycling tips from Kane County Recycling Coordinator Jennifer Jarland. Got a question or idea for a recycling tip? Contact Jarland at 630-208-3841 or

Q: I live in Elgin and have Waste Management as our garbage/recycling hauler. I’ve been getting notices from them after pickups stating they don’t allow recyclables in plastic garbage bags, which I believe they used to allow because I’ve never had issues before. My question is do you allow us to put our recyclables in the blue clear designed for “RECYCLING” bags? I don’t understand the reasoning for throwing them loose in our cans because (it is easier and cleaner to have them in bags). Please advise.

A: We do not want plastic bags in the recycling carts, period.

Plastic bags of any description, either empty or full of recyclables, including blue bags, should NOT go in your recycling container. Blue bags used to be OK before the “single stream recycling” (mixed containers and paper) systems became prevalent 10 years ago or so, but now recyclable materials should go into the bin loose.

Why Is That?

Once your recyclables are collected at the curb, they go to a material recovery facility, where they are tipped onto the main floor and then scooped bit by bit onto the conveyor belt running into the sorting area.

A series of machines and human sorters begin separating the materials. If recyclable materials are in plastic bags, it creates several potential problems.

(1) The bags need to be caught and ripped open on the fast moving conveyor belt so that the materials can be separated, which slows things down and takes valuable time from the sorters.

(2) The bags may or may not have recyclables in them so sorters are wary, and there is a danger of sharps or other hazardous contents, so if it is tightly tied, it may be trashed.

(3) Bags get loose in the process and get wrapped around the equipment clogging the system, so that they have to shut the plant down several times a day to climb out onto the machinery and manually cut the bags. (Any soft plastic film, or plastic bags, once they have been subjected to the mix of materials are ripped torn and dirty, and are ultimately pulled out and landfilled rather than recycled).

Recycle Bags at Grocery Stores

If you keep plastic bags and film out — clean, dry, and empty — you can return them to the grocery store for recycling. For more details on what kinds of plastic bags and film to recycle, see the Kane County Recycles Plastic Bags Page.

Best Practice Idea

I keep my indoor recycling bin lined with a paper bag, which I then take out and upend into the curbside bin and then drop the bag in as well (or reuse it). You can do that with plastic bags just as easily except that when you upend it you need to then throw the plastic bag into the garbage (or reuse it)…

How Is Recycling Sorted at a Material Recovery Facility?

If you are interested in a video on the single stream sorting process, click on this link!

Thanks for asking, and let me know if you have any other questions!

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