Film Plastics: Can You Recycle That?

The City of Boston’s “Ordinance Regarding the Reduction of Plastic Bags” is now in effect. This new regulation aims to curb the adverse effects of single-use plastics on the environment, such as the greenhouse gas emissions from plastic production and pollution from discarded waste. Retailers (including BBR) no longer provide free single-use plastic bags, and will instead provide bags that are reusable, recyclable, or compostable, for a fee. Shoppers are encouraged to bring their own reusable bags. 

This is a big step forward for plastic reduction in Boston. Still, plastic grocery bags are used widely throughout the area and other single-use plastics, such as produce bags, are still permitted. Residents who want to minimize their plastic footprint can recycle as well as reduce and reuse.

Plastic bags actually can be recycled. However, they cannot be placed into the single-stream recycling bins for curbside collection. Plastic bags are made of plastic film—a soft and flexible polyethylene material—also used in many other forms of packaging including bubble wrap, zip-top bags, and dry-cleaning bags, to name a few.

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Where do you go to recycle plastic bags?

Generators of large quantities of film plastics, most notably grocery stores, will often accept these materials at drop-off locations at their stores. The collected plastic bags can be baled together. The Plastic Film Recycling website has a directory of drop-off locations, as well as lots of information on what materials can be recycled.

Why can’t plastic film be recycled at a regular processing plant?

According to Jeff Coyne, the executive director of Earthworm Recycling, BBR’s recycling contractor, “The loose bags foul up the sorting lines and conveyors by getting wrapped around the equipment.” This affects the efficiency of processing all recyclables and could potentially cause damage.

A secondary reason for the difficulty processing bags is that not all plastic bags are made of the same plastic polymer, said Jeff. “And sorting bags by polymer type is super uneconomical.” Most processing centers, such as the one in Charlestown operated by Casella, do not accept plastic film for this reason.

What kinds of materials can be recycled?

Any item made from film plastic can typically be recycled. This includes, but is not limited to:

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  • Plastic bags (retail, produce, newspaper, bread, and dry cleaning bags)

  • Zip-top storage bags

  • Plastic product packaging (like the kind around paper towels or water bottle packs)

  • Furniture or electronic wrapping

  • Plastic shipping envelopes, bubble wrap, and air pillows

  • Any film plastic packaging with the “How2Recycle” label

Not every drop-off location accepts the same kinds of items, so check your local location for specific details.

Make sure the items you recycle do not have food scraps or other non-recyclable materials inside, so rinse and dry any plastic that is not clean: just air-dry wet bags or shake out any crumbs.

If your item has food residue, doesn’t fit into any of the above categories, or doesn’t have the How2Recycle label, not recycling it may be the better option in order to avoid contaminating the rest of the plastic materials in the processing stage. “When in doubt, throw it out,” no matter how much we may want to recycle it.

Some other items that cannot be recycled include:

  • Biodegradable or compostable bags

  • Prewashed salad bags

  • Candy wrappers or chip bags

  • Six-pack rings

  • Most pet food bags

The website How2Recycle.info has more information.

What happens to plastic bags after being recycled?

Plastic film can be transformed into composite lumber to construct playground equipment, desks, and benches. Plastic bags can also be reprocessed into smaller plastic pellets that can be turned into new bags, plastic containers, or pipes—much better than being dropped in a landfill.

Minimizing our own plastic use can feel like an impossible task, since plastic is part of every facet of modern life. If we can’t eliminate plastic products altogether, the next best thing is to know how to recycle properly.

Kathleen McColgan