Can You Recycle Ziplock Bags? Get Your Plastic Bag Disposal On Lock
Many of us grew up going through multiple zip lock-type bags a day without thinking much about their impact.
It’s easy to see why.
With a lightweight design and resealable zipper closure to keep content completely contained and fresh, these resealable plastic bags are convenient, no doubt—but as usual, the planetary price of convenience is a steep one.
Our dependence on these food storage bags racks up a lot of plastic waste—like, 4.2 million tons of it, when combined with plastic shopping bags and film.
That’s why we’re asking the important questions about how to better dispose of them. Namely: can you recycle Ziploc bags?
Before we get more transparent about these clear bags, a quick note of clarification: Ziploc is a brand name, and much like Kleenex has become synonymous with tissues, Ziploc is the shorthand for all kinds of plastic snack, sandwich, and freezer bags.
Since they’re all made of the same core materials, the following rules apply to any standard (i.e. nonbiodegradable) plastic bag.
1. What Are Ziploc Bags Made Of?
Are plastic Ziploc bags recyclable?
Well, as with anything made from plastic, that depends heavily on what type of plastic they’re made of.
Unlike hard plastics, you can’t just flip a plastic bag over to learn a Ziploc bag’s recycle number.
Ziplock bags—along with plastic grocery bags, produce bags, and almost all other brands of sandwich, snack, and freezer bags—are made of a type of plastic called low-density polyethylene (LDPE).
This type of thermoplastic is flexible (so it can be molded into different shapes), durable, and moisture-resistant, making it ideal for food storage and packaging.
But is it ideal when it comes time to recycle sandwich bags?
2. Are Ziploc Bags Recyclable?
While LDPE is recyclable, not all recycling centers accept such soft plastics.
Recycling centers that accept LDPE will typically have a specific container or bin designated for this type of plastic, or it can be combined with other types of plastic that are labeled #4.
However, unless clearly labeled that soft plastic bags are acceptable, it’s important to double-check with your local recycling program to see if they accept LDPE Ziploc bags.
Most recycling centers do not due to the fact that it’s thin and flimsy—leading to a cost-heavy recycling process that most facilities deem not worth the effort.
If it turns out your local recycling plant does offer a Ziploc bag recycle service, make sure that it’s clean, dry, and empty before recycling, and placed in a separate plastic bag for collection.
Your best (and easiest) bet may be to look for a soft plastic recycling bin at the entrance of many major grocery stores—though ask management if zip lock bags are acceptable. Even if you’ve cleaned yours, they may not be due to potential food contamination issues.
Otherwise, look for an organization that specifically recycles plastic bags, such as Plastic Film Recycling.
If all else fails, Terracycle specializes in recycling hard-to-recycle materials, including LDPE.
While Ziploc has partnered with them to offer a free recycling program for their Endurables™ containers and pouches, no such recycling program exists for their single-use bags.
You can still recycle them through Terracycle’s Plastic Packaging Zero Waste Box, but you’ll need to pay for the box yourself.
To make it more affordable, talk to your friends and family about going in on one box (they’re spacious and can fit a LOT of zip lock bags) so you can all properly dispose of your plastic waste while saving a little money.
3. When & Why Are Ziploc Bags Not Recyclable?
The biggest obstacle to recycling sandwich bags is the recycling process itself. Namely, these three different factors:
- Clogs: Ziploc bags are made of a thin and flimsy type of plastic that can easily tear or get caught in recycling machinery, causing damage and delays at the facility.
- Separation problems: Ziplock bags are often mixed in with other types of plastic, making it difficult for recycling facilities to separate them and recycle them properly.
- Cost: While some plastics can be recycled up to 10 times before they “downcycle” into an unusable quality, LDPE is already so flimsy that it can only be recycled once (which is why you don’t often see recycled plastic bags). That means the costly nature of recycling Ziploc bags doesn’t really have a payback for recycling facilities.
These are core, unavoidable problems when it comes to recycling soft plastics, but they’re not the only ones.
Recycling contamination is another huge concern regarding the recyclability of soft plastic bags.
Just like soiled paper plates can’t be recycled, Ziplock bags with food or grease residue cannot be recycled, even in a facility that would otherwise do so.
And that goes for any type of dirty plastic or plastic that has food residue on it, as it can contaminate other materials and make them difficult to recycle.
If a ziplock bag is contaminated with food and cannot be cleaned, it should be disposed of through other means, even if that means the trash.
4. Alternatives To Recycling Ziploc Bags
While recyclable Ziploc bags are possible in large part due to specialty services, it’s not terribly easy to recycle Ziploc bags.
You likely can’t toss them in the blue recycling bin on your curb, nor are Ziploc bags biodegradable (unless you buy from specific compostable snack bag brands, of which Ziplock itself is not one).
So now you’re probably wondering, “How do I get rid of a Ziplock bag?”
Fortunately, there are some Ziploc bag recycling options that don’t involve actually tossing them in your blue bin. Plus, these second-life storage solutions will prevent you from buying other things to serve the need, saving you money.
Here are some solutions for how to recycle ziploc bags of various sizes on your own:
- Reuse Ziploc bags for food storage multiple times, washing with hot soapy water in between.
- Use them to store small non foodstuffs, such as screws, nails, toys, craft supplies, or game pieces.
- In a pinch, use them to pick up after your zero waste dog.
- Create a waterproof layer in a homemade first aid kit.
- Organize items in your purse or backpack.
- Make a DIY wet wipe bag to always have on hand.
- Reuse them as a disposable glove for cleaning or painting.
- Store wet swimsuits or dirty clothing when traveling.
- Use them to pack out your trash and toilet paper when hiking and camping.
- Keep some on hand for TSA-approved travel toiletry bags.
- Pop your phone inside to safely read in the bathtub.
- Cut off the corner to use a funnel or DIY cake frosting piping.
- Create waterproof knee sleeves for gardening and outdoor chores.
But wait, can you reuse freezer bags safely?
Depending on what was originally inside, with a proper cleaning, you bet!
Just don’t reuse used Ziploc bags if they stored things like meat or moldy foods, which can contain bacteria and other food contaminants. All the more reason to learn how to freeze meat without plastic!
If all else fails and they cannot be properly cleaned or reused, dispose of them in the trash, but be sure to properly seal the bags in a closed trash bin to prevent littering.
5. Ziploc Bag Alternatives
Try not to get too down in the dumps about the poor recycling prospects for these plastic storage bags.
Because while recycling might make us feel good, it’s really nothing more than a band-aid soothing our eco guilt and hiding an ever-growing plastic pollution problem.
Better to take a hint from the 5 Rs of zero waste (refuse, reduce, reuse, rot, and recycle, in that order) and reduce our consumption of single-use items like plastic freezer bags.
Here are some alternatives to Ziploc bags that can help reduce waste and be more environmentally friendly:
- Plastic-free food storage containers: Reusable glass or stainless steel containers with lids, like those by U Konserve, can be used to store food and other items over and over again.
- Silicone bags: These bags, from brands like Stasher, are made from food-grade silicone and can be used to store food or other items. They’re reusable, dishwasher-safe and can be used in the microwave or oven.
- Beeswax wraps: Offered by a multitude of brands like Bee’s Wrap, these are made from cotton fabric coated in beeswax and can be used to cover bowls or wrap sandwiches and snacks. Unlike most soft plastic films, it’s easy enough to clean beeswax wraps for reused.
- Cloth bags: Cloth bags (especially laminated ones like those from Green City Living) can be used to store produce, bread, and other items. They are reusable and can be machine-washed.
- Paper bags: While lacking the moisture resistant benefit of plastic snacks bags, classic paper bags can be used to store dry food items like bread, crackers, and cereal. They are biodegradable and can be recycled or composted, provided they’re not soiled with grease.
- Compostable and biodegradable bags: Compostable sandwich bags may seem like the ideal disposal option, but these are only a greener solution if they’re certified compostable like BioBags and will definitely be disposed of either in a home or industrially composting facility. If you intend to throw them away, plastic is ironically the better choice.
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Final Thoughts On Whether Ziplock Bags Can Be Recycled
While Ziploc and other plastic sandwich bags are recyclable, the process is difficult and inaccessible. Which is probably why most people opt out of responsible disposal here.
But even if that’s not true, the best way to dispose of Ziploc bags is to simply dispose of our reliance on them altogether.
From their petroleum-based beginnings (about 12 million barrels of oil to supply Americans’ demand for plastic bags), to the heat energy needed in manufacturing, to their eventual demise over the course of hundreds of years in landfills or oceans, Ziploc bags are an environmental nightmare.
Saying no is easy, too. Look at Denmark, where the average person uses four plastic bags per year (compared to an American’s 365).
Refuse in favor of reusable eco-friendly alternatives when you can and reuse Ziploc bags when you can’t. In doing this, you’re taking a key step toward low waste living.
Lastly, if you have friends or co-workers rarely seen without a plastic snack bag in hand, passing this article along is a stellar way to drop hints about more sustainable ways to pack their snacks.