Person walking past greenery carrying plastic carrier bags

Can I include plastic bags in my recycling?

12 Jun 21

When it comes to what to throw in your household recycling bin, plastic bags can often leave you baffled, making them one of the most common items to incorrectly be put in the recycling bin for many local authorities.

We’ve come to depend on plastic bags for lots of uses. They’re strong for their size, don’t take up a lot of space when not needed and can last a long time so perfect for repeat use.  
The trouble comes from treating plastic bags as disposable, something to throw away after just one use. We need to rethink our habits by reusing them or looking for alternatives.  

As a nation, Scotland has done a bonnie job at reducing our use of plastic bags since the introduction of the 5p single-use bag back in October 2014 charge (now 10p – April 2021). The first year of the charge saw a whopping 80% drop in the 800 million single-use bags previously handed out across the country each year. 

Can plastic bags be recycled at home?

Unfortunately, no. Recycling plastics comes with many challenges. The key issues are there are multiple types of plastic, the cost of recycling plastics varies depending on the type of plastic, and the market demand for different types of plastic fluctuates over time.  

Local authorities don’t have the means to collect all types of plastics. By collecting a specific range of plastic (like bottles/pots, tubs and trays) the likelihood of these items being recycled and reproducing the highest possible quality product is greatly increased.    

Plastic bags and film can also cause problems at recycling plants, clogging up the sorting equipment and potentially causing whole loads of recyclable waste to go to landfill.  

When using plastic bags to store or transport recycling before placing them in the bin remember only the recyclable materials should be put in the recycling bin.  

So how can plastic bags be recycled?

The good news is many large chain supermarkets have recently started collecting carrier bags and plastic film in stores to be recycled as a single material.  

Most types of plastic bags can be recycled at carrier bag or soft plastics collection points in many larger supermarkets. This can vary from store to store so best to check with them directly but in general, if it has a ‘recycle with carrier bags at larger stores – not at kerbside’ packaging symbol on it then it can be recycled as long as it’s clean and free of food. 

Types of plastic film that can be recycled include  

  • Plastic bread bags 
  • Plastic bags from cereals 
  • Plastic wrappers from multipacks of cans and plastic bottles 
  • Plastic wrappers from toilet roll and kitchen roll 
  • Plastic freezer bags 
  • Plastic magazine (home delivery) and newspaper wrap 
  • Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) – resin code 4 

Types of plastic film that can't be recycled include  

  • Any non-polyethylene film e.g. polypropylene (PP), polyvinyl chloride (PVC) 
  • Wrappers from bakeries (the ‘crunchy sounding’ ones with lots of little holes) 
  • Bubble wrap 
  • Cling film 
  • Crisp packets 
  • Food and drink pouches 
  • Film lids from food trays 

Many large chain supermarkets have recently started collecting carrier bags and plastic film in stores to be recycled. #HowToWasteLess

Preparing plastic bags for recycling

Plastic bags must be clean and free from food so be sure to remove any receipts, shake out any crumbs and peel off any stickers before recycling – we’re talking about your date label tags!  

If the bag is sticky turn inside out, wash with dish soap, rinse and dry with a tea towel or hang out on the line with the washing. If anything, it’ll make a great talking point with the neighbours and you might even start a trend. 

Use one of the bags to collect the others in until you have enough to take to the supermarket collection point. You’d be surprised how many you can stuff in a bread bag! 

What about compostable and biodegradable plastic bags?

Compostable and biodegradable bags aren’t designed to be recycled and can potentially cause quality issues with the recycled materials if they enter the recycling system.  

This type of packaging is also not suitable for home composting and requires a commercial composting facility to break down so should be placed in your general waste bin at home. 

Breaking up with other single-use bags at home

There’s more to plastic bags than your bog-standard shopping bags so what can be done?

As always, the best thing to do is reduce the number we bring home… 

  • Pop sandwiches, snacks and leftovers destined for the freezer in reusable containers rather than sandwich or freezer bags. 
  • Choose hardwearing non-plastic shopping bags that can be mended when they show signs of wear and tear. 
  • Buy cupboard staples like rice, pasta, flour and oats from packaging-free zero waste stores. 
  • Use reusable cloth bags for loose fruit and vegetables in the supermarket – keep them with your shopping bags so that you remember to take them with you. 

Have you found ways to reduce or reuse your plastic bags? Share your ideas with us by tagging @HowToWasteLess on social media. 

Pop sandwiches, snacks and leftovers destined for the freezer in reusable containers rather than sandwich or freezer bags. #HowToWasteLess