Are Trash Bags Recyclable? It’s Complicated!

Are trash bags recyclable? Well yes, but the answer is not so straightforward. And, like the answer to “are coffee pods recyclable?” you may not like what you find. But we totally understand why you might be wondering since we are also well aware of how dealing with trash (and trash bags) can be a serious struggle.

Especially when trying on a more sustainable lifestyle or trying to go zero waste entirely. And if you, like me, are doing your best to tackle the seemingly infinite number of things we appear to have gotten totally wrong when it comes to everyday life, go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back for even trying! We love you all the more for it and thank you for doing what you can to reduce your environmental footprint.

That said, as you might’ve heard, modern humans generate a tonne of waste – an estimated 2.01 billion tonnes a year to be exact – just by going about our day-to-day lives. Most of it is neither biodegradable nor compostable

From this angle, we can really see why trash bags (and trash bins) are such an essential part of modern life and how we deal with all this waste we generate every day. So wondering about how to deal with them, and finding better alternatives like biodegradable vs. compostable trash bags is great. And that’s just what we’re getting into here. But first, let’s get down to some more of the nitty-gritty. 

Anyone who’s ever tried to go zero waste (or has managed to do it successfully — go you!) is acutely aware of how much trash we generate and how much we actually rely on our trash bins (and their trusty companion, the plastic trash bag). By going zero waste, the idea is not to need any trash cans or trash bags in the home at all. Zero waste principles are based on the 5 R’s and the key components of waste management involve a good composting bin, an active compost pile (or composting pick-up service), new shopping habits, and the right zero waste swaps, and avoiding plastics like the plague! Quite the feat as you might imagine! 

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We didn’t always generate as much waste as we do now though. Back in the 1960s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the US generated just under 100 million tonnes of municipal waste. By the 1990s, that number swelled to 208.3 million tonnes. And in 2018, the total amount of municipal solid waste (MSW) generated was estimated at 292.4 million tonnes.

There was an observable spike in the amount of plastic waste generated since the 1960s too. Back then, less than half a million tonnes of plastics were disposed of, compared to the 35 million tonnes accounted for in 2018, much of which went to landfills. Remember that these figures are just for the US alone. 

The US generates so much trash that some of its landfills are expected to run out of space by 2040. Similarly, in Canada, the City of Ottawa is currently figuring out how to get more people to adopt more sustainable habits when it comes to trash — by recycling and composting — to avoid having to build another landfill which is very costly

And, while our waste streams have certainly evolved, our waste management systems have not kept up. This is clear to see when considering the facts about recycling. In the US, only about 5-6% of plastic actually gets recycled in the face of a 35 million tonne problem which just ends up kind of getting scattered everywhere; notably in our oceans.

Plastic waste is so overwhelming that the US, Canada, and Europe even took to shipping it to be recycled in less developed countries where it is cheaper. Countries like China and the Philippines have stopped accepting this waste and there have been claims of rich countries like these illegally exporting plastic waste to poor countries. 

Whether or not these claims are true remains to be seen but how bad are our waste problem that it is being shipped across the planet to be recycled and the subject of international law violations? This really points to a larger problem – the magnitude of which still escapes many. But, the truth of the matter is the amount of waste we generate matters, and how we deal with it matters even more. 

What is a trash bag? Official definition! 

So, what is a trash bag anyway? People out there are wondering and we’ve got the answers! According to Cambridge Dictionary, it is "a plastic bag put inside a bin to hold the waste and keep the container clean". Both hygienic and practical (as with many of our beloved disposables), trash bags have become an indispensable part of the modern home as we know it — serving as a kind of disposable lining for our trash bins. 

Impermeable and flexible, they adapt to the shape of the bins we put them in and become the perfect home for our banana peels and other food waste, disposable food and drink containers, the plastic film wrapped around countless everyday items, zip lock bags, cereal bags and other food packaging, paper towels, napkins, the dust we’ve collected while cleaning around the house, old rags, the ties around bread bags, and all sorts of other stuff. They also serve as containers for our trash as it makes its way to the landfill with as little fuss as possible (unless accidentally punctured of course!).

Are trash Bags Recyclable? 

Can you recycle trash bags? Technically, yes. But in the US and Canada, most (if not all) curbside recycling programs cannot recycle plastic film, wraps, or bags of any kind.

plastic bags […] are among the greatest headaches for recyclers grappling with growing contamination of their recycling streams, which slows their systems, drives up their costs, and hurts the quality of the materials they sell to be reborn into new products.

Chicago Tribune

So if the question "can you put trash bags in the recycling bin?" has ever crossed your mind, consider that resolved. It is generally best to keep them out of the recycling bin unless you are absolutely sure your local waste recycling plant is equipped to process them

No blue plastic recycling bag is needed for your recycling bin either! Just chuck your recyclables right into the bin as instructed by your local waste management services (i.e. rinse plastic bottles and cans, etc). 

If you are looking to recycle plastic film, bags, or wraps supermarkets tend to have drop-off bins you can use. You can also try this plastic bag drop-off location finder using your zip code for the best options near you. 

The thing is you have to make sure they are clean, free from food particles, and dry. So if you were thinking of recycling used black plastic trash bags, they would have to meet these requirements in order to be recycled – lest they wind up contaminating the waste stream. 

Are trash bags bad for the environment?

The standard black plastic trash bags we use are not so kind to the environment. They are made from plastic which is derived from fossil fuels. They also do not degrade in landfills and if they do, they can contaminate the environment as they break down. 

Since we generate so much trash, we use quite a lot of these bags — an estimated 500 billion plastic bags worldwide. As with much of what many of us have become accustomed to, probably best to find a more sustainable alternative in the long run. 

Poster for a call to recycle garbage and don't use plastic, save planet web banner, eco-bags, vector illustration, Symbol of the earth planet is polluted by waste - environment — VectorPin

Are trash Bags Biodegradable or compostable? 

Some trash bags are biodegradable, and some are compostable. If they are compostable they are also biodegradable by definition. 

When a trash bag is considered biodegradable that just means microorganisms can break it down into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass, but this can leave unwanted toxic residue behind. So just because something is labeled biodegradable, that doesn’t mean it’s better for the environment. In fact, plastic polymers can be engineered to do just that so “biodegradable” is not the answer.  

Alternatively, when conventional plastics do break down, they basically just turn into smaller and smaller pieces that end up staying in the environment, accumulating in the food chain in some instances, which is not so great for our ecosystems or for us. Microplastics were even found in human blood for the first time recently. I don’t know about you but if it’s still an option, I’d definitely like to opt-out of microplastics in my bloodstream. But judging by the amount of microplastic found in fish, I don’t know how good my odds are. 

That said, we would like to heed caution when reaching for biodegradable utensils, biodegradable bags, and other disposables labeled as being "biodegradable" because they are not always best for the environment. Especially if they are only going to wind up at a landfill where they cannot decompose.

Where bags are verified by trustworthy third-party certifications and are made from materials that will not go on to harm the environment, they are better where leachate and microplastics are a concern, but still not great.

Unfortunately, compostable trash bags are somewhat similar. If your trash is still on its way to the landfill, it might be better in terms of your overall environmental footprint but it will just go on to sit in the landfill along with the rest of our waste. Unless otherwise indicated (i.e. home compostable) most compostable products — including trash bags — also need to be industrially composted where the conditions are ideal for their decomposition. 

Are Black Plastic trash Bags Biodegradable? 

Unless otherwise specified, black plastic trash bags are not biodegradable. Based on the guidelines for what can be labeled biodegradable, products must completely break down and revert back to nature (without causing undue harm to the environment) — usually within 1 year or less. The ASTM D6400 standard and the ASTM D6868 standard are examples of such guidelines. They are used globally by reliable certifications like the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) certification for compostable plastics.

On the other hand, are black trash bags recyclable? Yes, they can be. But as we mentioned before, they must be clean and dry and recycled at recycling plants that can actually recycle them.

The four different container for sorting garbage. For plastic, paper, metal and organic waste — PhotoPin

How to get rid of your trash bags:

Are plastic trash bags recyclable might not be a matter of recyclability at all. But more a matter of how to get rid of your trash bags. Here are some tips with several alternatives to consider:

  • Use certified compostable bio-based trash bags instead of plastic bags. Seemingly one of the best options for the most amount of people — even when destined for the landfill or if they somehow wind up in our oceans. Where they are responsibly produced, compostable bio-based trash bags are a no-brainer to plastic, fossil-fuel-based trash bags. They have a lighter footprint and if you do send your compostable waste to an industrial composting facility they work quite well.
  • Use bags made of recycled materials. A less good but still better option than virgin plastic bags, recycled trash bags give a second life to existing materials and do not require virgin plastics which is a marked improvement. 
  • Repurpose old cardboard boxes and bags. This is especially helpful for anyone who has an abundance of old cardboard boxes and bags lying around. Put them to good use by using them instead of plastic trash bags. This will reduce your contribution to the making of virgin plastics and save you some cash! Here, the issue arises where this may not be a great long-term solution for most. Still, reusing or repurposing things is kind of a secret weapon when trying to live more sustainably so we definitely had to mention this one.
  • Use newspaper to line your trash bin rather than plastic trash bags. The newspaper creates a barrier between the waste you are putting in the bin and prevents it from sticking. If you are interested in this solution, you may have found there aren’t as many newspapers lying around as there used to be. But you may be lucky to find some at your workplace, or get some from friends and neighbors. Altogether though, this one generally seems like a temporary solution. If you are making the transition to a zero-waste home, however, this may be the best option.
  • Go without a liner altogether. Likely one of the most undesirable of the options listed, not using a bag or liner of any kind. The trash can is after all containing trash. This will definitely require more maintenance (water and soap) but it is a sure-fire way of reducing the need for plastic bags in the long run. It is also very likely to save you money too! And no need to worry about being glad trash bags are recyclable ever again! 
A dog between the polluted nature and beautiful landscapes — PhotoPin

Last but certainly not least, using fewer trash bags by reducing the amount of waste we generate, thereby reducing the number of bags we use ("virgin", compostable, recyclable, or otherwise). Here are some tips on how to go about this: 

  • Composting our food scraps. If you cannot start a compost at home, consider a compost pick-up service, or look to see if there are any compost drop-off locations in your community. Composting in an apartment is totally possible if that is something you would like to try. 
  • When shopping, bring your own bags. To the grocery store, to the thrift shop, or any other store. 
  • At the grocery buy in bulk and/or bring your own reusable containers if possible. You can also favor products packaged in more reusable/easily recyclable packaging like glass, cardboard, and metal. 
  • Try to implement practices for a zero waste bathroom or a zero waste kitchen to generate less waste from packaging all around the home. Consider a reusable lunch container rather than plastic zip lock bags or disposable wrapping materials. Bring your own coffee mug or reusable water bottle around.
  • Learn how to use a reusable razor and ditch the disposable plastic ones. There are lots of other swaps that can help reduce the amount of waste entering and leaving the home.  

If you have some clean plastic bags you want to get rid of, the easiest way to get rid of them is to drop them off at your local plastic film drop-off location. If that is not an option, consider turning your old plastic bags into fabric or yarn! There are a lot of ideas out there to try so definitely give it a search. You may be surprised by what you find. Worst comes to worst, send them to the landfill and try your very best to steer clear of them in the future. 

As for "can you recycle paper plates or greasy pizza boxes?" If they are stained with tomato sauce and oil, they cannot be recycled. Unfortunately, recycling is not the magic we want it to be just yet! 

A final word on are garbage bags recyclable?

For many people, it is nearly impossible to go without plastic trash bags. We totally get that. But as we’ve learned with the most likely solution for most – even if your trash bags are environmentally friendly – they still leave a hefty footprint behind. Unfortunately (and very inconveniently for many), it looks like the best thing to do is to reduce (or try to eliminate) the amount of trash entering the home and leaving for the landfill. 

This can be quite daunting, but if you still have to use trash bags and a landfill to deal with your trash like many of us do, reducing the amount of the waste you generate has the most impact overall.

If this feels overwhelming, once I noticed how much trash I generated it became a thousand times easier to take action where I could. Conversely, I have simply come to terms with the things I couldn’t go without because at this point any little bit helps as we work toward creating a more sustainable future for everyone. 

If you found this post helpful, please help someone by sharing this article – help me to help others 🙂!

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