Recycling's Dirty Dozen — No. 5: Plastic Bags Are The WORST Contaminant in Your Recycling Bin!

Recycling’s Dirty Dozen — No. 5: Plastic Bags Are The WORST Contaminant in Your Recycling Bin!

  • Editor’s Note: This article is written by Marie Streenz, operations analyst for Midwest Fiber Recycling in Normal, IL, along with Kane County Recycling Coordinator Jennifer Jarland, both of whom are members of the Illinois Task Force for Recycling Contamination Solutions. The article is part of a year-long a series on the “Dirty Dozen” of recycling — the 12 items that should NOT go in your recycling cart. Got local questions or concerns? Contact Jarland at at 630-208-3841 or

We have all seen the chasing arrows symbol on plastic items, including plastic bags. That symbol means recyclable, right? Not really.

The chasing arrow symbol simply tells the kind of plastic that material is made out of. Sometimes it means it can go in your curbside bin or single-stream drop off program, and sometimes it doesn’t.

In this case, plastic bags should not be recycled in your curbside bins as no single stream center is able to process them. Instead, these bags end up causing more harm than good.

Plastic bags are the WORST contaminant in the recycling bin, in other words the most common and most problematic material in the recycling bin that SHOULD NOT be in there in the first place.

Do NOT Put Any Kind of Plastic Bags in Your Bin!

Do not put your recyclables in plastic bags or place them in the bin loose. In fact, do not put any kind of plastic bags in your curbside recycling cart at all — full or empty!

To collect recyclables in your home, use paper bags. Then tip the material out into the cart and throw the paper bag in after them.

If you do use a plastic bag to collect recyclable materials in the house, just empty the recyclables out into the cart and then reuse the plastic bag or place it in the trash.

Additionally, do not put bags of full of more plastic bags in the cart thinking they will get recycled. They get wet and dirty and cannot be recycled. Also, those bags open up — so instead of one bag to sort out at the recycling center, now there are dozens.

Plastic Bags Damage Equipment

The image on the left is a clogged sorting screen. The image on the right is trash consisting mostly of plastic films.

Plastic bags cause a lot of damage to the recycling equipment.

You may think that a flimsy bag that sometimes rips with your groceries in it can’t possibly do any damage, right? Well, as the pictures above show, plastic bags get tangled in the sorting equipment. Once they wrap around the spinning shafts, they become wound tighter and tighter.

They rub against the rubber discs and cause a lot of wear, eventually breaking the discs, which are costly to replace.

Every day at lunch and the end of shift, employees have to climb into these sorting screens and physically cut off everything wrapped around it. Even with safety protocols, this can cause injuries.

Please do not put any “tanglers” like plastic bags in the recycling.

Bags Are Recyclable — Just Not in Your Curbside Cart

Now, you may be saying, “Hey wait, I have seen collection bins at the grocery store for plastic bags.” This is true.

Plastic bags with a #2 or #4 can be recycled at participating grocery stores if they are clean, dry, and empty.

In fact, several kinds of plastic bags and plastic wrappers can be included in these grocery store collections. Check out this full list of acceptable plastic bags and film. Those bags do not go to the same kinds of recycling facilities as curbside collection programs and drop-off single stream recycling programs, but go to a designated facility designed to handle them.

If you want to recycle your plastic bags, please make sure they are clean, dry, and empty and take them back to designated collection points at the grocery stores.

Or better yet, avoid using them at all by using your own reusable, washable cloth bags instead!

Read The ‘Dirty Dozen’ Series!

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