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Can Polythene Bags be Made of 100% Recycled Material?

Polythene packaging made from 100% recycled material? Isn’t this the dream – the holy grail of plastic packaging production?

Well, yes it’s possible. In fact, 100% recycled material is pretty common in some sectors. Take bottled drinks as an example; many brands, including giants like Nestlé, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, have moved over to 100% recycled packaging in some of their product lines. But it’s not a silver bullet solution, as we’ll find out…

So, what about 100% recycled polythene bags? Well, you’ve probably used them many times in your life already – in the form of domestic black bin bags and supermarket carrier bags. This is where it gets tricky, because when it comes to poly bags, 100% recycled material has historically been seen as good enough to throw away, and not much else.

This is because packaging products made from recycled polythene differ from those made from virgin material – and the difference is not always subtle. However, some of these differences have no impact on some applications. Let’s explore the usefulness of 100% recycled polythene, including when you might want to use it, and when to avoid it.


An image of recycled polythene products o na black background. Coloured polythene bags in yellow, blue and orange – plus two plastic bottles in brown and green – all screwed up together.


Aesthetic differences

First, let’s cover the most noticeable difference with recycled material; the looks.

Polythene bags produced from 100% recycled materials tend to display distinct aesthetic differences compared to those manufactured from virgin polymers. Virgin polythene bags can be crystal-clear, or made with any colour in the masterbatch. Depending on the manufacturing processes used, the resulting finish can be pristine – smooth and free of imperfections.

On the flipside, recycled material very often has visible imperfections – ranging from a sort of clumpiness, or non-uniform texture, to a variable colour. Perfect clarity is not usually possible. There are usually some surface irregularities and imperfections, too. This is all down to how polythene is currently separated and recycled.

Read more: How Is Plastic Packaging Recycled?

These differences in appearance don’t always compromise the functionality or usability of the bags for things like bin bags and shopping bags, but transparency and colour options are limited. Also, 100% recycled polythene bags might not be an effective solution for high performance applications, which we’ll cover shortly.

For applications where a more predictable and controlled appearance is desired, manufacturers tend to lean towards blends of recycled and virgin materials. These blends offer a smoother, more uniform surface and better transparency, while reducing the reliance on virgin material. Also – a bag made from a 70/30 virgin to recycled blend (or 30% recycled) avoids the UK’s Plastic Packaging Tax.

While colours and transparencies are limited in 100% recycled polythene, it’s perfectly fine for some applications, like simple coverings, waste bags, separator sheets, and in logistics use. Solid opaque colours are also achievable in high recycled content blends, which can be printed, too.

One important thing to note is that there are two grades of recycled polythene; pre-consumer and post-consumer. Read about these in more detail here.

100% recycled polythene bags are perfect for mailing bags, waste sacks, carrier bags, and as internal protective packaging – applications where stresses and stakes are low, and looks don’t matter so much.

The real, non-aesthetic issues with 100% recycled material begin in high performance and sterile applications, where virgin material is more often preferred.

Strength and integrity of 100% recycled polythene

This is where the wheels fall off the wagon a little bit. The recycling process weakens plastic’s molecular structure, resulting in a generally lower quality of product all-round. Recycled plastics are less reliable structurally as a result – but why is that?

Because of the way recyclable plastics are sorted, impurities are impossible to filter out completely. Different colours, additives and polymer blends can’t be screened out, either. So, when the long polymer chains from multiple sources are all mixed together, they aren’t perfectly woven together and uniform like they are in virgin material, even if they appear fully mixed.

Red more: Every Plastic That Can (And Can’t) Be Recycled

This means that 100% recycled polythene bags require more material to produce a product of equivalent strength to a bag made of virgin material. This can cancel out some of the environmental gains by introducing more weight (and more waste material), but in practical terms, it means a bag that is thicker, less structurally reliable and more prone to notching than one made of virgin material.

Demanding and high performance applications – like construction, aquaculture and aerospace – may not tolerate these shortcomings, even for packaging.

And then, there’s food and medical grade polythene to consider.

Medical and food

Polythene bags for food are rarely made from 100% recycled polythene. Actually, it’s rare to see any blend of recycled polythene in industrial food packaging – except for on the consumer-facing side, where it’s largely used as marketing on the aforementioned drinks bottles.

In medicine, recycled packaging is not considered, either – let alone using recycled material for devices or implants. In both of these sensitive sectors, the risks of contamination are seen as too high for recycled polythene to be applicable.

This could change though, if we sort out sorting; the biggest hurdle to recycling we all face.

Food and medical packaging is hard to recycle, too. The good old “ick factor” at play.  People don’t want to know if their packaging was once used in a hospital, or wrapped a sandwich – it’s kind of… Gross. But again, with proper filtering and sorting, this can be overcome. It’s all about how much effort we want to put into recycling, and how much reward we get from it.

As long as it’s cheaper, cleaner and more energy efficient to make new material, the advantages of using virgin polythene will continue to see it win out. But by making smart decisions about where to use 100% recycled polythene and which grade to use for each application, the impact of plastic waste can be mitigated massively.

Oh, and it’ll save you money on your tax bills, too.

Recycled polythene bags, in any blend ratio

NPF Packaging is a UK polythene manufacturer, with in-house capability to create polythene films and bags in any custom polymer blend. Get recycled polythene bags in any size, any blend – and made to your exact specifications.

Get a quote now, or call us on 01773 820415 to start your order.