Is Bubble Wrap Recyclable?

Don’t throw bubble wrap into your regular recycling bin! Here’s what you need to know about this type of plastic to keep it out of a landfill.

Admit it: You loved popping bubble wrap as a kid, and still do as an adult. There’s something weirdly satisfying about it, not to mention stress-relieving. Plus, this ubiquitous packing material is incredibly useful, protecting delicate items when we’re shipping them or packing them up to move.

But bubble wrap is actually a major stressor on our environment, much like other plastic products from water bottles to Styrofoam.

Research from the Environmental Protection Agencey (EPA) shows that in 2018, 4.2 million tons of plastic bags, sacks and wraps were produced. Of that number, a whopping 3.04 million tons ended up in landfills. According to additional data from the Recycling Partnership, just 2% of film and flexible packaging materials are recycled annually.

So what can you do to help, aside from avoiding this packing material? Is bubble wrap recyclable?

The short answer is yes. But you need to know how to recycle bubble wrap, since it can’t simply be thrown in with the rest of your recyclables for curbside pickup.

Here, we delve into what you need to know about this material — what it’s made of, and how to recycle or repurposing it to reduce your carbon footprint. Believe it or not, you can use bubble wrap in many ways you’d never expect!

What is Bubble Wrap?

Bubble wrap, of course, is a sheet of plastic with air bubbles. It’s a packing material you might wrap around breakable items when you’re moving or sending a gift. Think vases, dishes, collectibles and whatever else.

You’ll likely find it surrounding everything from those delicate items to electronics when you buy them at a store. But it also pops up (so to speak) in some envelopes.

On its blog, the Katzke Packaging Co. says “bubble wrap is made from tiny beads of resin with different properties … [which] is then combined and melted to form a thin film.” That film is then fed through rollers with small holes to create air bubbles and ultimately sealed with another layer of film. It’s then rolled into large rolls to be sold.

While being made, it can be customized by thickness, length, perforations, bubble size and color.

Is Bubble Wrap Recyclable?

Yes, but it can’t be placed on your curb for pickup or brought to your regular recycling center for drop-off. That type of recycling is reserved for harder plastics like milk containers, water and soda bottles, etc.

Made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or high-density polyethylene (HDPE), harder plastics are classified as Resin Identification Codes (RICs) #1 and #2 in the recycling world. That’s what the majority of recycling machines were built to handle.

Bubble wrap, on the other hand, is made of low-density polyethylene (LDPE), classified under RIC #4. This category comprises plastic films, bags and wraps, including shrink wrap.

Why Is Bubble Wrap Difficult To Recycle?

The main issue: Bubble wrap and other plastic films clog recycling machines. This stops the recycling process until the machine gets fixed, which costs time and money. Workers may also sometimes hurt themselves trying to clear the jam.

There’s also the issue of contamination. This is a fancy way of saying all recyclables need to be kept separate. Even if an item is recyclable, if it’s placed in the wrong bin, it might be rejected at the recycling plant. When that happens, it ends up in a landfill.

So make sure to separate that bubble wrap from your other plastic recyclables. And if you have a combo item like a bubble-wrap-lined envelope, break it down into its parts (bubble wrap and paper) and recycle each accordingly.

How Do You Recycle Bubble Wrap?

Find a recycling center that deals specifically with this type of plastic. While it’s an extra step, you can easily incorporate it into your recycling routine once you have the right information.

Even easier? Reusing bubble wrap for various projects around your own home.

Where can bubble wrap be recycled?

To find a recycling center near you that accepts bubble wrap, search Bag and Film Recycling’s Drop-Off Directory. Just plug in your zip code and a list of nearby centers will pop up, at places like Target, Walmart and local grocery stores.

You can also use the Recycling Center Search, powered by Earth 911, to find bubble wrap recycling centers, as well as spots for other tricky recyclables.

Once at the recycling center, a machine will break down the bubble wrap into tiny pieces and eventually turn them into pellets. Those pellets go into lots of plastic items, from furniture to flooring to construction materials.

Repurposing bubble wrap

If you still want to use bubble wrap, or use up the bubble wrap you already have on hand, reuse it as many times as you can. After it’s served its main purpose, stash it away in the attic or a closet and bide your time until the next time you need it. (Trust us, you will!) You can also give it to friends who are moving or offer it for free on sites like Craigslist, FreeCycle or Facebook.

Upcycling is also a smart option for bubble wrap. With upcycling, it will get a new life as something else that’s equally handy.

Use it in gardening to insulate plants in containers when the weather turns chilly or to protect delicate blooms from frost. It also helps to keep hot food hot and cold food cold, as well as insulate drafty windows (ideally ones that are out of sight) and outdoor doghouses and treehouses.

And if you have kids, there are loads of art and sensory activities you can try with bubble wrap, from “stomp painting” to making creative painted cards with — you guessed it! — bubble-like motifs. The only limit is your imagination.

The Downside to Bubble Wrap

Bubble wrap may be recyclable, but it’s not biodegradable.

According to Green Citizen, it could take anywhere from 10 to 1,000 years to fully decompose in a landfill. And once in that landfill, it can release toxic chemicals into the ground and water supply, potentially harming animals and humans. If it’s burned in an incinerator, chemicals like dioxin enter the air.

Both situations increase pollution and greenhouse gas emissions — including methane and ethylene — and accelerate climate change. And that’s even if the bubble wrap makes it to a landfill, as opposed to littering the land, the ocean and other waterways.

Besides the environmental considerations, there are a few personal ones as well. Bubble wrap can take up a good deal of storage space. And when you do use it for something like moving, you tend to need a lot of it. Those costs, of course, add up quickly.

Alternative Packaging Materials to Bubble Wrap

Luckily, bubble wrap isn’t your only option to protect your valuables. Eco-friendly companies now offer various innovative, alternative packaging materials that are environmentally friendly and biodegradable.

Ranpak created a honeycomb cushion wrap made of paper that’s durable, protective and 100% curbside recyclable. Plus, you don’t need a scissor to cut it or tape to wrap up your item.

Corn starch-based packing materials look just like plastic foam peanuts but are nontoxic and compostable. There’s also mushroom packaging, which will decompose in about 30 days. And don’t forget about repurposed newspapers, kitchen towels and old shirts. Talk about an easy and economical solution to your packing problems!

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Suzanne Downing
Suzanne Downing is a lifestyle writer with an environmental science journalism background. She covers outdoor recreation, sustainability, conservation, photography, travel, gear and more. When she’s not writing or out photographing landscapes and wildlife, you can find her coming up with a creative woodworking project or out hiking in her home state of Montana. She's also Communications Manager for Outdoor Writers Association of America, based in Missoula, MT.