How Can I Recycle Plastic Packaging?

Photo credit: net efekt/Flickr

One thing that is puzzling me these days are the plastics that are used so ubiquitously as packaging…plastics like you find wrapped around paper goods, breads, etc. They don’t seem to be made of recyclable plastics and I wonder why they can’t be made of plastics like we use in plastic bags.

Phil G.
New York, NY

In the last few years things have started to change: Bread bags, for example, are now accepted for recycling at locations that accept plastic grocery bags. But when it comes to why product packaging isn't made of recyclable materials, the answer is threefold, according to Keith Christman, senior director of packaging at the American Chemistry Council. In some cases, the plastic is recyclable, but local programs don’t have facilities to handle them. So while most locations don’t accept yogurt tubs, many cities in California do take them (and Whole Foods Market is taking the tubs in other regions). In cases such as food wraps and frozen food or salad bags, plastic that might otherwise be recyclable is too contaminated with food. “Washing bags and wraps is very resource- and water-intensive for flexible packaging thus clean material is collected in the in-store programs,” says Christman. Finally, some packaging is composed of multiple layers that cannot be recycled but help preserve food from spoilage and so prevent waste.


If you don’t mind going to the trouble of taking bags and wraps to a drop-off center, however, there is a large variety you can recycle. Stores such as Whole Foods, Wal-Mart and Barnes & Noble have collection boxes for bags, or see for sites near you.

These plastic bag types can be recycled:
• all clean, dry bags labeled #2 or #4.
• bread bags
• case wrap (e.g., snacks, water bottles)
• cereal box liners
• diaper wrap (packaging)
• dry cleaning bags
• electronic wrap
• furniture wrap
• grocery bags
• newspaper bags
• plastic retail bags (cut off hard plastic and string handles)
• plastic shipping envelopes (remove labels)
• produce bags
• toilet paper, napkin, and paper towel wraps
• Tyvek (no glue, labels, other material)
• zip lock bags (cut off hard components)


Whatever the plastic you’re trying to recycle, the key lies in learning the plastic recycling codes and checking with your sanitation department about which plastic types it collects. So here is a rundown:
#1 PET (or PETE)—widely recycled; used for beverage containers
#2 HDPE—widely recycled; used for milk containers and grocery bags
#3 VINYL or PVC—cannot be recycled
#4 LDPE—recyclable at drop-off centers; used for plastic film and produce bags
#5 PP—recyclable in some areas; used for yogurt containers
#6 PS—rarely recyclable; used for coffee cups, serving plates and dishes
#7 Miscellaneous: PLA and PC—compostable PLA can be sent to a municipal composting facility, but PC (polycarbonate) is neither compostable nor recyclable


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