Can you recycle paper bags? Yes – but conditions apply!

  • Date: June 9, 2022

The environmental issues associated with plastic bags has led to an increase in the use of paper carrier bags over the last few years. The demand for paper bags has skyrocketed. However, amongst other issues, these lack the re-usability factor of their plastic counterparts. Thankfully, they can be recycled curbside – but if they are mixed with other materials or contaminated with food, this may not be possible. Here we will take a closer look at when paper bag recycling is possible, and when it is best to avoid.   

Firstly, what are paper bags made of?

This may sound like a ridiculous question – paper bags are made from paper, right? Well, yes and no. The simplest form of paper bag is, indeed, made from paper. The paper used to make bags tends to be made from recycled paper but it can also be made from new paper derived from wood pulp.

However, the world of paper bags does get a bit more complicated. Simple paper bags can be a bit too fragile for some activities, such as carrying hot foods or transporting heavier items. To make sure they are up to the task, paper bags are often lined with other materials such as plastic or foil. Plastic provides extra strength and durability whilst foil provides a thermal layer.

So, can paper bags be recycled?

Paper bags that are made from straightforward, no-nonsense paper can be recycled! And it really couldn’t be simpler. No special pick-ups are required, you can just throw it into the standard curbside collection. Out of all the recyclable materials available, paper seems to be the most universally accepted by standard collections. But, of course, services do vary from country to country and even town to town. If in any doubt check with your local authority.

When collected, paper bags can be recycled in a few different ways. They are often made into new paper bags, or other paper-based products, but they can also be shredded and incorporated into other types of packaging. Composting is also an option used by recycling services.

Ultimately, it does not matter what method is used. These all ensure one thing – your paper bag will be diverted from landfill! Although paper bags are biodegradable, landfill does not provide optimal conditions for breakdown meaning they could persist there for several years. 

What about lined paper bags – can they be recycled?

Paper bags that are lined with plastic or foil are not suitable for recycling – despite being predominantly made of paper. Typically, in the world of recycling, mixed materials cause havoc! Despite all the materials being individually recyclable, the way that they have been blended together makes the recycling process impossible.    

The best option for these types of bags is to re-use or re-purpose them any way you can to divert them from landfill. Paper bags that are coated, or lined, with plastic will be stronger than your average paper bag; so it does provide a chance to re-use over and over again. Gift bags in particular, will last a fair few rounds of gifting!

Things to consider when recycling paper bags…

If your paper bag is contaminated with anything, such as grease from your take-out, it can’t be recycled with your curbside recycling program. If the area of contamination is limited, you can cut off the affected area and recycle the rest.

If it has large areas of food contamination, composting may be an option. Although there are certain foods that should be avoided when composting at home (such as cheese), in very small quantities most items will be fine to add to your pile. Just ensure that you remove the bulk of the offending food item, rip up the bag and bury the pieces deep. This will reduce the chance of any lurking wildlife sniffing it out. However, as with all composting, if you feel uncomfortable adding an item you should err on the side of caution. Pop it in the trash instead.

Paper carrier bags can often have a string/twine handle. This is often the case with clothing retailer shopping bags and gift bags. Although these add aesthetic appeal, unfortunately, when it comes to recycling they can cause problems. These, typically, do not belong in the curbside collection and must be removed along with any other decoration. Often these contain synthetic fibers but if you know they definitely originate from natural sources (such as hemp or jute) they can be added as a carbon-rich ‘brown’ item to your home composting pile.

The bottom line

At first glance, all paper bags may look to same. However, to provide improved functionality, they are often coated with plastic or foils. They may do their job better, but when it comes to their disposal – especially recycling – the mixed materials will cause issues. Paper bags that only contain paper are widely accepted in curbside collections (minus the twine/string handles). The others are destined for landfill – after as many re-uses as you can manage!