Dry-cleaning bags, made of hard-to-recycle plastic film, are best avoided.

dry-cleaning-bag-recycling.jpg Every time you go to the dry cleaner, your clothes come back to you wrapped in a huge swath of plastic. And, if you are a dedicated recycler or environmentalist, that probably bothers you a little. What are you supposed to do with that plastic sheet once you your clothes arrive home? Most plastic bags (including dry-cleaning bags) are recyclable. The question is how much of a hassle it is to get that plastic to a recycler. Plastic bags are typically not recycled at the curb, but the nearest recycling center could be as close as your local grocery store. Here is our advice on where to look for dry-cleaning bag recycling centers — and a few ideas for reducing the number of plastic bags you bring home.

What are dry-cleaning bags made of?

Dry-cleaning bags are made with low-density polyethylene (or LDPE, which corresponds to the recycling #4). This particular type of thin, clear plastic is known as “film” in the recycling industry. High-density polyethylene (or HDPE, which corresponds to the recycling #2) is used for many other types of film, including plastic shopping and trash bags. Besides turning old bags into new ones, both types of plastic can easily be recycled into lumber, tile and a number of other consumer products.

Why should I recycle dry-cleaning bags?

Dry-cleaning bags, like anything else made of plastic, are not biodegradable. That means they will sit in landfills forever. Americans go through more than 300 million pounds of dry-cleaning bags every year, and even though those bags are small, they still take up a lot of space. There are many other reasons to keep dry-cleaning bags out of your garbage can. Plastic is a petroleum-based product, so recycling it cuts down on petroleum use. The bags contain numerous toxic chemicals, including dioxins, which are released if the plastic is incinerated. In addition, dry-cleaning bags and other types of film plastic are a real nuisance in the waste stream. The wind catches them easily, so they have a tendency to escape trashcans or piles and create litter on highways and in transfer stations. Film plastic can get caught in recycling machinery, damaging equipment and causing down time at recycling centers. If that plastic finds its way into the ocean, marine life can get tangled in it and birds can eat it, mistaking it for food. Finding ways to responsibly recycle film plastic is a big win for both the environment and recycling companies.

How do I recycle dry-cleaning bags?

The first person you should ask about recycling dry-cleaning bags is the source: your dry cleaner. Many companies will keep unwanted bags at their shop for reuse and recycling. In Austin, TX, a company called Cycled Plastics has teamed up with dry cleaners and will pick up any unwanted bags from them. So far, eight companies (totaling more than 50 locations) have signed up for the service. In most cases, dry-cleaning bags can be recycled with other types of film, including plastic grocery bags, bread bags, bubble wrap and the small bags that protect your newspaper from the elements. That is not always the case, however, so make sure you understand the guidelines set by your local program. Curbside programs that accept dry-cleaning bags and other types of film plastic are few and far between. Glendale, CA, and San Antonio, TX, are rare examples of cities that take them at the curb. They ask homeowners to stuff all their plastic bags in one bag and tie it to keep individual pieces from escaping. You are much more likely to find a film recycling program at local retailers. Rhode Island has a very comprehensive program where grocery stores and other retailers put out bright blue collection boxes at their locations. Another possibility is your local recycling center. The self-help recycling centers in Madison, WI, accept film plastic. So does the recycling center in Horsethief Canyon, WY. Before placing dry-cleaning bags in any type of recycling bin, make sure you have removed all other potential contaminants, including hangers and receipts.

How to reduce the number of dry-cleaning bags you use

As noted above, you can simply leave your dry-cleaning bags at the dry cleaner if they can reuse them. Bring a garment bag with you if you have lots of clothes or need to carry them on public transportation. The Green Garmento offers dry cleaners reusable bags they can share with their customers. Their bags are made with heavy-duty plastic and will hold up to 14 garments at a time. More than 1,000 dry cleaners across the country use the product. Ask your dry cleaner to consider carrying them. Another way to reduce your dry-cleaning bag consumption is to send fewer items to the dry cleaner. The blog Thank Your Body offers six tips for avoiding the dry cleaner, including hand washing garments, steaming them in the dryer or with a hand steamer and (this was a new one to me) spraying them with cheap vodka to kill bacteria. Give these ideas a try — each of them will help decrease the amount of film plastic in circulation.