Bubble Wrap is recyclable but is rarely accepted in kerbside collections because it is made from plastic “film.” These sheets of very thin plastic require special equipment to recycle and cannot be combined with your other plastic recycling.
What is Bubble Wrap?
Bubble wrap is made from LDPE (low-density polyethylene) film and is part of the #4 plastics group. Multiple thin layers of this plastic film are placed on top of each other and then air is forced between them to create the bubbles. Heat is applied to stick the layers together and ensure the air remains in the bubbles. It’s then used in shipping (as packaging) and as an insulator in homes.
Because the film it is made from is so flexible, bubble wrap causes problems for machines designed to recycle products made from thicker LDPE (like plastic bags). This means they must be recycled separately; if they aren’t, they can cause jams in the machinery. Recycling companies don’t like that because it’s expensive so it is often not offered as part of a curbside recycling program.
Fun Fact: Like Styrofoam, bubble wrap is a brand name and a registered trademark for a specific product (owned by the Sealed Air Corporation). We should really refer to other versions by the generic name of “air cellular cushioning materials”!
Why Is Bubble Wrap Bad For The Environment?
Bubble wrap is non-biodegradable, requires petroleum (a limited resource) to make, and releases toxic chemicals if burnt. Additionally, its light weight means it is easily carried by the wind; you might put it in the trashcan, but it rarely stays there. It ends up on roadsides, floating in rivers and seas, or almost anywhere else. Like the plastic bag, it is both an eyesore and a threat to wildlife.
This is an entirely avoidable problem – almost all the waste bubble wrap you see lying around or sitting in a landfill could have been recycled with a little bit of effort. Unfortunately, as with plastic bags, people often don’t know how to recycle them.
Every time you buy bubble wrap, you’re contributing to the use of petroleum, which is a) limited and b) bad for the environment. Recycling plastic is important to reduce future use of petroleum. We’ll look at alternatives below.
Additionally, we’ve never seen a bubble wrap that was made from more than 50% recycled materials; most ‘green’ bubble wrap contains about 30% recycled materials, and non-green ones might not have any.
How Is It Recycled?
Plastic film material is ground up and can then be used to create other products. It is often combined with other materials, such as sawdust, to create a harder plastic called plastic lumber. This material is used to make outdoor decking, benches, fences and furniture.
Plastic Lumber is a great material for reducing waste. It’s hard wearing, waterproof and recyclable into other products.
Where Can I Recycle Bubble Wrap?
(Wait! Before you recycle, consider how you can reuse it – see below!)
These instructions apply to most bubble wrap and other similar products, including the bubble wrap found inside envelopes and mailers and also the plastic air pillows (“fill-air”) used by companies like Amazon, Walmart and Home Depot to protect their products. If in doubt, check the label or the business’s website.
Please note: if you have a bubble mailer which includes a paper envelope you must separate the paper envelope from the bubble wrap and recycle them separately. You must also remove any other labels or anything else stuck to the bubble wrap.
In the USA, bubble wrap is not normally collected in your kerbside recycling program, and when it does there are often special instructions – check with your local authority. Assuming you can’t leave it at the kerbside, there are normally drop-off points at local stores and pharmacies (you can search drop-off locations here). It can also be returned to the manufacturer using the instructions on the SealedAir website.
In the UK, bubble wrap is collected in weekly household collections in a few areas, so check first. It can also be left at collection points for carrier bags at most major supermarkets (Waitrose, Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Asda, etc.). Bubble wrap may also be accepted at your local recycling centre.
In Canada, bubble wrap is not normally collected in weekly household waste collections, and you may need it to take it to a local recycling center or search for a store that accepts them. It can also be returned to the manufacturer using the instructions on the SealedAir website.
In Australia, bubble wrap is not normally accepted at the kerbside collection but can be dropped off anywhere you see a Redcycle drop-off bin. These can be found at many Safeway, Woolworths, and Coles stores, among others (check out the Redcycle locator here).
Reusing Bubble Wrap
As with plastic bags, it is almost always better to reuse rather than recycling if you can. You could:
- Save it for future packaging needs
- Donate it to friends or family who are moving
- Offer it out on sites like Freecycle
- Use it for children’s projects
- Insulate items bought from the grocery store
- Wrap up pots to help protect the plants inside during winter
- Create a makeshift water cooler by wrapping your (hopefully reusable) cup
There are plenty of eco-friendly alternatives to bubble wrap, but many of them are only available in bulk. Ideas like mushroom packaging (made out of mushroom roots – mycelium – and agricultural waste) and seaweed packaging sounds great, but it’s not much help for consumers if it’s only available for businesses.
One easy to purchase option is paper: scrunched-up newsprint paper will do a good job protecting your breakable objects. Just make sure you buy some which is made from recycled paper (like this one) and then reuse or recycle it again afterwards.