In a busy outdoor market, one person takes a plastic bag full of fruits and vegetables from the seller.
It’s so easy to acquire plastic bags — but getting rid of them is another story. Photography: Whiteaster /

What to Do with Your Old Paper and Plastic Shopping Bags


By Mia Bencivenga


January 13, 2021

The New Year is a great excuse to deeply clean and declutter your house. Whether it’s washing your curtains, dusting your knickknacks, or going through your clothes to find pieces to donate, it’s a good time of the year to put your best foot forward. For me, that meant tackling the seemingly infinite number of shopping bags I have stashed under my sink and in the pantry.

As I started to go through them, the first thing that popped into my head was — how on earth did I end up with so many?

Then I thought about it. Anytime I go shopping, I take home bags. Sure, I have a bunch of reusable canvas bags I bring with me on my trips, but I tend to underestimate how much I need before I go to the store. And so, the under-the-sink bag graveyard was born.

It got me thinking; how many of them do I bring home throughout the year?

I did a little research and discovered that the average family takes home 1,500 plastic bags a year. I don’t need to tell you that that’s, well, a lot.

So, what do we do with them?

Here are a few ideas that can help you deal with your old shopping bags.

1. Sort them out.

Here’s something I didn’t realize; plastic bags can be made from many different types of plastic. Some are recyclable, and some aren’t — unfortunately, that means you can’t treat them all the same. So, I began with the most tedious task, sorting my plastic and paper bags. I organized all of them, putting the same types of plastic paper and plastic bags together in groups. If you’re about to start sorting your own bags, try to keep the bags you bought at certain stores — like Rite Aid, Wholefoods, and Giant Eagle — together. That’ll save you some time later!  

2. Recycle what you can.

Recycling always feels good! And it’s certainly a better alternative than just throwing everything away. But it’s important that you do your research before tossing your plastic bags into your bin. Just because something has the recycle symbol on it, doesn’t mean that your facility can process it. See what your local waste management plant can process and only recycle those bags. Otherwise, you might end up dooming everything in your recycling bin to the landfill.

3. Take them back to where they came from.

Many grocery stores, pharmacies, and big box stores will take back their old plastic bags and recycle them into new ones. Keep your plastic bags in your trunk, and when you go shopping, take the bags you can no longer use and turn them in.

4. If you can’t recycle, reuse!

Of course, you can always use your extra shopping bags for, well, shopping! But that’s not the only thing they can do for you. Here are some of the other ways you can use extra plastic bags:

  • Trash can liners
  • Packing material
  • Doggie cleanup bags
  • Protectors for your side mirrors (wrap them in a plastic bag to keep them from getting iced over)
  • Plant protectors (throw plastic bags over certain plants you’re trying to protect from overnight frost)

And of course, some ideas for paper bags:

  • Compost bags
  • Book covers
  • Packing material
  • Liners for bird cages

5. Get creative 

Still overwhelmed with a bunch of bags you can’t recycle? It’s time to get crafty. If you have or know some little ones, paper bags can be used to make funny masks and characters. If you’re working on a project or painting, you can line the ground with them to pick up your mess. And believe it or not, you can actually use plastic bags to make rope, baskets, and all sorts of projects. You might even choose to make sleeping mats for the homeless.

          So, if you’re dealing with your own heaping pile of shopping bags, I hope some of these tips will help you tidy up your house — and give some of those old bags a new purpose.


By Mia Bencivenga