Recycling Right: Plastic Bags & Films

So what’s the deal with plastic bags?  Or bubble wrap, or those “air pillows” we sometimes get in a delivery box?  Those have the recycling symbol on them, so they must be recyclable, right?

Hold up.

Plastic films like these are tough ones – they can’t be recycled in a single-sort recycling plant like ecomaine’s (or most others across the country, in fact).  This is for a handful of different reasons.


First and foremost, we at ecomaine closely follow what’s called the Waste Hierarchy. This means we really prefer to REDUCE and REUSE before we even get to RECYCLE.  Reusable shopping bags are much more preferable to single-use plastic bags in the first place.  (And if you have those plastic bags, we definitely encourage reusing them as small trash liners or something like that.)  In fact, many ecomaine member communities have successfully put in place plastic bag bans or fees, in order to discourage single-use bags.

Next, there really isn’t much of a market for these kinds of films, making it really tough to send them out to be recycled, even if we could take them.  (Supply and demand are a big part of recycling!)  But when bags do get into our facility, they make a big mess of our sorting operations.  We have to stop operations for as much as 90 minutes sometimes to clean all of it out.  Check out our video that demonstrates the dangers of plastic bags and other “tanglers.”

BUT…  (There’s always an exception, isn’t there?)

The one, single, sole, ONLY exception to the plastic films rule is for shredded paper.  The way to recycle shredded paper is to put it all in a clear plastic bag.  That way, it contains the shredded paper (so it doesn’t turn into confetti on its ride to ecomaine in the recycling truck), and our workers can immediately see what it is, open the bag, and get the paper onto the right conveyor belt.  (As always, you can take a tour and see this all for yourself!)

BUT… (Wow, wait – another one?!?)

Didn’t ecomaine used to take plastic bags?  Yes – that’s true, we did!  A few years ago, ecomaine did allow residents to include #2 or #4 shopping bags with their recycling – limited ONLY to empty shopping bags that were not full of other recyclables.  But that policy had to change for those reasons above.  For the past few years, plastic bags we get in the recycling stream are treated as contamination (trash) – and that means more time and money spent by ecomaine and the member communities that make up our organization to sort it all out and clean it all up.

There are lots of resources at ecomaine to tell which bin to put it in.  The easiest is the Recyclopedia – our mobile app and online database with almost 800 items to look up, and see where that item should go.  And we have posters, cards, flyers, and more – to put on your refrigerator, to share, and to have a quick look when you’re not quite sure.Want to read even more?  Check out this article from the CBC about why certain items with the recycling symbol aren’t always as recyclable as we think.  And head over to Plastic Film Recycling for places like grocery stores or department stores where you can take your bags and films to be recycled into plastic lumber (neat!).

Thanks from ecomaine for thinking about which bin to put it in and recycling right!