Q. Plastic bags, films on packaging, and things like cheese wrappers never have numbers on them. Are these bags and films recyclable with the plastic shopping bags (usually collected at point of source in my area – grocery stores, mainly)?

Knoxville, Tenn.

A. Dearest Earl,

We recently looked at the recyclability of the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag. (The gist: YES, you can probably recycle them at drop-off locations around town. NO, you probably can’t put them in the curbside bin.) Now it’s time to shine a light on their even more confusing cousins, those “other” plastic bags and flexible films. Cheese wrappers, Ziploc baggies, the plastic wrap that comes around your toilet paper — what’s to be done with them?

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Good news, Earl: Many drop-off sites also accept these items and more. This stuff is made from polyethylene, just like the grocery bags, and would carry a #2 or #4 symbol if it had a symbol at all (it often doesn’t). Of course — and this is a great idea whenever you have a recycling question — you can always ask the recycler exactly what is and isn’t kosher to add to the stash. For example, some locations accept cereal bags, plastic shipping envelopes, and Saran wrap (Knoxville is all over that last one), some don’t. Recycling policies vary from town to town, and even from store to store, so better safe than contaminating the bin.

Please also note two flexy plastics that usually aren’t accepted: frozen food bags and salad mix bags. These two may have additional polymers or other ingredients, which is good for extending shelf life but complicated for recyclers.

Now that we’ve sorted that out, Earl, indulge me while I dig into a topic that doesn’t come up often enough when we talk about those wonderful triangular arrows. Recycling is great, but just because you can drop off your baggies doesn’t mean you should have baggies to begin with. In other words, let’s think Reduce first, then Recycle. With a little planning, you can find alternatives to many of those bags clogging your cabinet, or at least lighten the load.

Try these tips (many of them cribbed from the comprehensive My Plastic-Free Life):

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  • Store fruits and veggies in reusable cloth bags, or just set them free and toss them straight into your reusable shopping bag.
  • Shop the bulk section and tote your goodies home in your own reusable containers. You can do this with everything from flour and olive oil to shampoo and bath salts if you have a well-stocked supermarket nearby.
  • BYO containers for deli meats and other prepared foods.
  • Get your bread fresh from the bakery in a paper bag, or use your own cloth sack.
  • Buy items like TP in bulk to reduce the overall packaging.

Cheese is a tricky one, Earl. So much of it comes to us prewrapped in Saran-style cling or crinkly plastic. If you like shopping at specialty cheese shops (or your grocery store is sophisticated), you can procure your Cheddars and Camemberts cut to order. But think before you ask your cheesemonger (finally, a chance to use that word!) to wrap it up in wax paper (potentially reusable with a few wipes, but not recyclable) or aluminum foil (basically the same, waste-wise, as recyclable plastic bags). Instead, pop the product straight into a reusable glass container or do it the old-fashioned way with cheesecloth; that’s what it was born to do, after all, and as a cotton product, you can also compost it.

I’ll bet you can come up with even more tricks, Earl. Enjoy the challenge — and may your bag hutch forever be empty.


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