Are Reusable Grocery Bags Recyclable?

What To Do With Our Reusable Bags?

In today’s age of bag bans and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, we are no longer ignorant of the long-term devastation disposable plastic bags can inflict on the environment. As awareness continues to grow, many of us have switched to reusable grocery bags, leaving our flimsy and disposable plastic bags in the past. However, many of us have neglected to consider what happens to our reusable shopping and grocery bags when they wear out.

Why Reusable Bag Material Matters:

Inconveniently, the simple answer to the recycling question is: “it depends”. Reusable bags can be made from a wide variety of materials, and not all of them can be recycled. Of those materials that can be recycled, around half of them cannot enter the curbside recycling system; putting an old reusable bag into the wrong recycling system can contaminate an entire batch of material for recycling, meaning that your well-intended efforts could actually cause more waste to end up in landfill. Because of this, it is crucial to identify what kind of material your bag is made from before trying to recycle it.

The Problem With Recycling Symbols:

The obvious first step to identifying your bag's material is to check the tag. However, if your reusable bag is worn out enough that you’re ready to recycle it, there’s a good chance that the tag already went missing. Nonetheless, if your bag’s tag is still in place, interpretation may be required. Why would the tag need interpretation, you say? I’m glad you asked. To illustrate, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you see the image below?

Three Vectors

Recycling, right? Well, you’re not necessarily right and not necessarily wrong. There is no unified standard that mandates how the familiar 3-vector symbol you see above is used, so sometimes the symbol is used to symbolize a material that can be recycled, sometimes it’s used to symbolize a material that has already been recycled, and in some cases, it’s for both. Take these seven symbols, for example:

Grades of plastic symbols

The numbers and abbreviations added to the symbols above change their meanings significantly; instead of having anything to do with recycling, each one now symbolizes a different grade of plastic. Of the seven plastic grades symbolized above, three of them cannot be recycled at all. Clearly, the symbols alone don’t tell the entire story.

For the purposes of this article, suffice it to say that you should only curbside-recycle a plastic reusable bag if it is one of the following grades: #1, #2, #4, or #5. If your bag is made from #3, #6, or #7 plastic, trying to recycle it would only contaminate the recycling stream. For more information on the composition and properties of the different plastics, Natural Society wrote a great piece about it called Your Guide to Plastic Recycling Symbols.

How To Recognize a Reusable Bag's Material:

If your bag has already lost its tag, you can usually still identify it’s material composition fairly easily. A great majority of reusable shopping bags are made from one of the following materials: cotton, polyester, polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), or recycled PET (rPET). Fortunately, each of these fabrics has a distinct pattern that can help you to identify them.

Cotton is the most easily identified fabric due to its natural fibers and the feel. On close inspection, you will find the cotton weave to look something like this:

Organic Cotton Weave Pattern

Cotton can be recycled, but only at a textile recycling plant, where the scrap material will be mechanically separated to its fibers and then be re-spun with new fibers into yarn. This process greatly reduces the waste footprint of cotton and is well worth doing, but please note that cotton items absolutely cannot be curbside recycled - they must go to a textile recycler.

Polyester is another commonly used fabric for reusable bags, and like cotton, it must be recycled at a textile recycling plant and cannot be curbside recycled. Somewhat more difficult to identify by touch, polyester can be identified by inspecting the pattern of the material. On close inspection, polyester will look like this:

Polyester Weave Pattern

Note the tight pattern with a chain-link stitch. Although polyester can be stitched in different ways, this is the most common stitch pattern, and it is easily discerned from the cotton bags on close inspection.

Polypropylene, abbreviated as PP, is a plastic-based fabric that is used in many reusable grocery bags. PP is curbside-recyclable in most neighborhoods, but you can call your local waste management firm to be certain. PP is noted for its water resistance and cloth-like feel, but it can also be identified visually by its square or diamond-shaped patterning. On close inspection, PP will look like this:

Polypropylene weave pattern

Note the patterning is not a stitch, but rather a stamped pattern. This is because polypropylene is most typically not a woven material, instead it is hot-spun directly into a fabric.

PET and rPET are like PP in that both of these fabrics can be curbside recycled in most neighborhoods, but unlike PP, PET and rPET tend to be less water resistant unless laminated. Laminated PET and rPET are easy to discern by their waxy, reflective surfaces; if it is laminated, PET and rPET usually cannot be recycled.

Similar to PP, PET and rPET is a plastic-based fabric that does not have a stitched pattern, usually being hot-spun directly into fabric. However, the pattern for PET and rPET is usually a much looser, fibrous composition that is reinforced with PET threads. On close inspection, PET and rPET will often look like this:

PET weave pattern

Summary

The good news is that the most commonly-used materials in reusable bags can almost always be recycled, although some may need to go to a textile recycler. With this article as your guide, you should be well on your way to determining just what kind of material your own reusable grocery bags are made of, and how to properly dispose of them when they eventually wear out.


We’re proud to say that each of our GoGreenBags can be recycled, and we’re happy to support our customers who will eventually need to do so. If you still have any questions about recycling your GoGreenBags, please Contact Us to let us know, or check out Our Products!