We all like to believe that throwing a paper bag into the recycling bin will be processed for future use. But this type of “wish cycling” doesn’t always work out as we hoped.
Paper fares better than other types of recyclables in terms of what gets recycled, but the system is still imperfect. Only sixty-six percent of paper gets recycled, and the rest winds up in a landfill. Unfortunately, whole batches of recycling can be contaminated if even one material that doesn’t belong goes in with the batch.
Recycling rules differ by every municipality because the US does not have a federal recycling system. It can be challenging to keep up with what does and doesn’t go in the bin! Here’s how to recycle paper bags to keep them out of the landfill.
Types of Paper Bags
When you think of paper bags, the first image you might picture is the brown paper bags used at the grocery store, but there are several different kinds of paper bags. Each type has its own rules for disposing and recycling.
Coated Paper Bags
Coated paper bags are plain paper bags covered with any material, but most commonly a plastic film or wax paper. Picture the kinds of bags you get from retail stores. Plastic or wax coatings can make coated paper bags tricky or even impossible to recycle, depending on where you live.
The coating can disrupt the recycling process, meaning they are best trashed or reused. Coatings prevent the paper from breaking down in the recycling process.
Gift bags are another kind of paper bag that’s often also coated. Gift bag materials are varied, but they sometimes have dye, glitter, or other embellishments that make them difficult to recycle. According to the EPA, we generate 25% more trash during the holidays, much of that due to gift wrap and gift bag-related waste.
Uncoated gift bags without embellishments can nearly all be recycled.
Bleached or Dyed Paper Bags
Bleached or dyed paper bags are paper bags that either had their color entirely removed with bleach or had color added with dye. These bags are regularly found in retail or for gift bags and decorative purposes.
These bags can be recycled depending on local guidelines, as long as the paper isn’t coated.
Brown Paper Bags
These bags are probably the easiest to recycle as long as they are free of oil from food waste. Brown paper bags are manufactured without coating or ink and are commonly used to transport groceries or school lunches.
Brown paper bags are made from paper pulp pressed into flat sheets and rolled. When recycled, they are broken down into that original pulp and repressed.
How to Recycle Paper Bags
- Check your local guidelines: Every municipality is different regarding paper recycling, so it’s important to know what your recycling facility does and does not accept.
- Check your bags: Before recycling, ensure your paper bags are free of plastic, food residue, or any liquids.
- Remove any non-paper pieces: If your paper bags have handles made of plastic or ribbon or any other non-recyclable accouterments, remove these before recycling.
- Fold: Fold your paper bags to conserve space in your recycling bin.
Can You Recycle Greasy Paper Bags?
Many restaurants use paper bags for takeout, which can leave behind greasy stains. If you have greasy paper bags in your house, whether from takeout or lunch, you might wonder whether you should put them in the recycling bin.
The short answer is no. Grease will contaminate the recycling process, but if your area supports composting or if you compost at home, these paper bags can be used for compost! The best way to compost a greasy paper bag is to tear it into small pieces and use it as browns in a compost bin or vermicompost bin. Ensure the paper isn’t coated, as the coating will interfere with composting.
If you don’t have compost, greasy paper bags must go in the trash to avoid contaminating the recycling process.
How to Reuse Paper Bags
If you are left with un-recyclable or coated paper bags, it’s a great idea to try to find ways to reuse them before you throw them in the trash. I am the type of person who will reuse paper bags repeatedly before getting rid of them, and there are several ways you can do this in your home too. Here are some suggestions.
Probably the easiest and most obvious way to reuse a paper bag is to use it as a tote bag to transport things, which is the bag’s original purpose. A tote bag is a great way to transport all the stuff you bring to your neighbor’s house for a dinner party or get your kid’s stuff home after a sleepover. The possibilities are endless.
Similarly, you can use paper bags to collect donations and then drop them in the bag at a charity center. Or drive around with it in the truck of your car for a couple of weeks first, if you’re like me. Either way, paper bags will keep your donations contained.
If you have a shredder, you can shred and use your paper bags as composting material. Make sure that the paper you’re using for compost is free of any ink or shiny plastic coating that will interfere with its ability to break down. The last thing you want to do is add harmful chemicals to your compost.
Shredded paper bags can also be recycled into packing material for shipping gifts or returns. This is an excellent use for paper bags with ink that can’t be composted. Shredded paper bags are also helpful when packing your breakables for a move.
Collect Weekly Recyclables
Paper bags can be used as a container to collect other weekly recyclables or as a bin liner for your existing recycling container. Since brown paper grocery bags can be recycled themselves, this saves a step when you take out the recycling. You can just throw the whole thing in!
Textbooks are super expensive and benefit from a bit of extra protection. When I was in middle school and high school, we were required to have book covers protecting all our books.
Instead of buying a new book cover, try repurposing paper bags into book covers. They are more fun than the popular stretchy kind because you can decorate and color paper to make your textbook into your own doodling canvas.
Gift Wrap or Tags
Paper bags can very easily be repurposed into wrapping paper. If you’re crafty, you can decorate them and cut out small squares from the scraps to fashion into tags.
Traditional gift bags also are far from single-use items. If you’re careful with them, gift bags can be reused and regifted time and time again.
Reusing your gift bags is always a good idea, especially since it requires little to no effort. These bags can be hard to recycle since they often are decorated with plastic elements or sparkles. Reusing will keep them out of the landfill!
Wrap a Flower Bouquet
Paper bags can be used to wrap a flower bouquet in a way that looks gorgeous. This video will show you exactly how, but with a couple of simple cuts and some tape, you can recycle a paper bag into a professional-looking bouquet wrap.
Table Cover for Crafts
Paper bags of any kind make the perfect table protector for crafts. Since most of us have switched to getting the news digitally, newspapers aren’t around as much to put down to protect the table before crafting adventures. Paper bags make an excellent substitute for laying down before paper mache or painting.
Use as Crafting Material
Reused paper bags protect the table from the crafts and can make excellent craft material themselves. Paper bags can be used to create any number of crafts, like ring chains or lunch bag snowflakes. They can be used as canvases for painting and so much more.
Paper bags can be repurposed as a weed suppressant if you have swaths of weeds in your yard or garden. Layer 2-3 bags over the patch of weeds to suppress the weed growth. The paper bags will physically prevent the weeds from continuing to grow by blocking the sunlight that feeds them. Bonus: over time, the bags will compost naturally into the soil below.
There are tons of creative ways to reuse old paper bags. They can be used as bags for transporting items, they can be shredded and turned into compost or packing material, or be used as book covers or material for crafts.
Yes, used paper bags are recyclable if they haven’t been contaminated by food or other liquids or if they aren’t coated or decorated with glitter.
Shredding paper shortens its fibers, which makes it much harder to recycle. Each round of recycling shortens the paper fibers, so if the fibers are already cut short, the paper can’t always be recycled properly. Some municipalities will still take shredded paper in the recycling, so check your local guidelines.