Can Plastic Dry Cleaning Bags Cause Problems?

Plastic dry cleaning bags are commonly used to protect clothes during the dry cleaning process. However, there has been some debate around whether these plastic bags can cause problems for the clothes, the environment, or even your health. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the key considerations around plastic dry cleaning bags to help you make informed decisions.

An Overview of Plastic Dry Cleaning Bags

Plastic dry cleaning bags, sometimes called poly bags, are made from plastic polymers like polypropylene or polyethylene. They are designed to protect garments during the dry cleaning process.

Here’s a quick overview of how plastic dry cleaning bags are used:

  • When you drop off clothes at the dry cleaner, they are first inspected and treated for stains. Then they are placed in clear plastic dry cleaning bags.
  • The plastic bags help prevent the garments from getting dirty or stained during the cleaning process. They also prevent the clothes from absorbing chemicals.
  • After dry cleaning, the clothes remain in the plastic bags until you pick them up. This protects them from getting dusty or dirty again.
  • The clear bags allow customers to inspect the clothes for stains before accepting them back from the dry cleaner.
  • Dry cleaners reuse and recycle the plastic bags as much as possible. However, most bags do eventually get discarded.

So in summary, plastic dry cleaning bags serve an important purpose – they keep clothes protected throughout the cleaning and storage process. But this also means they produce plastic waste, so the use of these bags is controversial.

Can Plastic Bags Damage Clothes During Dry Cleaning?

One of the biggest concerns around dry cleaning bags is whether they can actually damage clothing during the cleaning process. There are a few specific risks to consider:

Heat Damage

Excessive heat can damage fabric fibers and cause shrinkage. There are worries that plastic traps heat during the drying cycle. However, reputable dry cleaners monitor temperatures closely to prevent heat damage. The plastic barrier itself does not cause or increase the likelihood of heat damage.

Chemical Damage

Some people suspect chemicals can concentrate inside the sealed bag and cause discoloration or damage. However, quality dry cleaners properly mix and control cleaning solvents to avoid chemical damage. The plastic does not directly cause chemical harm.

Snags and Catching

Plastic bags can sometimes catch on zippers, buttons, embellishments, or delicate fabrics. This leading to snagging or holes. Thinner, lightweight plastic tends to pose a higher risk. Careful bagging and inspection by the dry cleaner can prevent most issues.

Yellowing Over Time

Prolonged storage in plastic after cleaning may cause a gradual yellowing effect on white fabrics. Opting for unbagged storage after pickup can minimize the risks. Periodic re-cleaning also helps reverse any yellowing.

So in summary, while plastic bags may play a contributing role in certain types of garment damage, the risks are relatively low with professional dry cleaning procedures. Any garment issues are more likely caused by errors in the cleaning process itself. Well-trained staff and quality bags greatly reduce any risks.

Do Plastic Dry Cleaning Bags Degrade Over Time?

Some consumers worry that plastic bags degrade and become less effective after repeated use. Dry cleaners reuse plastic garment bags dozens or even hundreds of times before finally discarding them. Does this reuse compromise their effectiveness?

There are a few factors to consider:

Material Breakdown

Polypropylene and polyethylene plastics can begin to degrade and become brittle after repeated chemical exposures and wash cycles. This could lead to rips and tears over time.

Loss of Structural Integrity

Seams, handles and edges may weaken and split with prolonged reuse. This could allow garments to slip out during cleaning.

Clouding of the Plastic

Clear plastic bags may become difficult to see through after repeated wash cycles, reducing visibility of garments.

However, reputable dry cleaners are careful to inspect and replace bags at the first signs of wear. Most will replace bags after 10-20 wash cycles. Staff should check for holes, tears, and clarity while bagging. With proper procedures, bag degradation should not directly cause damage. But degraded bags do increase waste plastic generation.

Is Dry Cleaner Plastic Recyclable?

Given the vast number of plastic dry cleaning bags used every year, recycling is an important consideration. Unfortunately, recyclability poses some challenges:

  • Material Type – Most plastic dry cleaning bags are made from polypropylene (#5 plastic), which is not accepted in many municipal recycling programs. Polyethylene (#2 and #4) tends have better recyclability.
  • Shape and Size – The thin plastic sheets are considered film plastics. Most recycling centers are not equipped to process large volumes of plastic film.
  • Cleanliness – Chemical residues on the used plastics means they cannot be directly recycled without processing. This increases costs.
  • Material Degradation – Heavily degraded bags with many imperfections will be rejected by plastic recyclers.

While plastic bag recycling options are limited, some progress is being made. More retail locations are accepting poly bag recycling. Some dry cleaners ship used bags to specialty recyclers. And sustainable packaging initiatives are promoting wider acceptance of polypropylene film. Ask your local dry cleaner about bag recycling options in your area.

Do Plastic Dry Cleaning Bags Generate Environmental Waste?

Plastic dry cleaning bags certainly contribute to the environmental plastic waste issue. The EPA estimates about 80% of dry cleaner plastic bags end up in landfills.

Here’s a breakdown of the environmental impacts:

  • Raw Material Waste – Producing virgin plastic resin for bags requires fossil fuels and creates greenhouse gases.
  • Energy Consumption – Manufacturing and transporting poly bags consumes electricity and fuel.
  • Landfill Waste – Most used bags get landfilled because recycling options are limited.
  • Plastic Pollution – Discarded bags contribute to plastic contamination of oceans, waterways, and landscapes.
  • Hazardous Additives – Some plastic contains chemical additives that can leach out. These include bisphenols, phthalates, and brominated flame retardants.

While a single dry cleaning bag may seem insignificant, the collective waste and pollution from billions of bags accumulates over time. But steps are being taken to improve. Some cleaners use 100% recycled plastic. Others have invested in reusable garment bag systems which reduce waste. Consumers can also help by reusing bags at home for storage.

Do Chemicals From Dry Cleaning Bags Pose Health Risks?

Dry cleaning involves potent solvents and chemicals, so it’s natural to be concerned about chemical residues in the plastic bags. However, risks to human health appear to be low based on current research.

Here are a few considerations around plastic bag chemical exposures:

  • Solvent Residues – Tiny amounts of perchloroethylene and hydrocarbon solvents may remain on the plastic. But levels rapidly dissipate through off-gassing.
  • Antimicrobial Additives – Silver nanoparticles or triclosan may be added to reduce odors. But exposure levels are very minimal.
  • Stain Repellents – PFAS compounds help repel water and oil. However, mandated phase-outs are limiting use.
  • Plasticizers – Phthalates are softening agents, but unlikely to be present in polypropylene or polyethylene.
  • Dyes and Pigments – Colorants to tint plastic are tightly bonded within polymers and inert.

So while various chemical exposures are theoretically possible, they likely pose little real-world risk for consumers. The clothes themselves have much higher chemical residues. Handle and dispose of used bags with basic precautions, and avoid direct skin contact with any cleaning chemical residues. The potential health risks appear very limited.

Alternatives to Plastic Dry Cleaning Bags

Given the environmental and potential health impacts of plastic dry cleaning bags, many consumers prefer to explore alternatives. Here are a few options to consider:

Reusable Garment Bags

Some dry cleaners offer reusable zippered cloth bags. These get washed and sterilized after each use. However availability may be limited.

Paper Bags

Kraft paper provides an eco-friendly alternative to plastic. However, paper does not offer the same level of protection.

Bio-Based Plastics

Bag made from plant starch offer enhanced environmental benefits. But they are not yet in widespread use.

Naked Dry Cleaning

A few progressive cleaners use no bags at all. Clothes get individually fastened to the rack. This provides no protection, but generates no waste.

Home Dry Cleaning Kits

Chemical-free home dry cleaning kits let you clean clothes without any plastic waste. However, results are not as thorough professional cleaning.

Hand Washing

For many lightly soiled garments, hand washing with gentle detergent avoids the need for dry cleaning entirely.

While the alternatives are promising and increasingly available, traditional plastic bags still dominate the dry cleaning industry currently. Ultimately consumers must weigh factors like affordability, convenience, and garment protection when selecting options. But environmental awareness is driving positive changes.

Frequently Asked Questions About Dry Cleaning Bags and Plastic Waste

Can I decline plastic bags when picking up dry cleaning?

Some cleaners will allow you to decline the plastic bag and take items unbagged. However, this provides no protection against dust or dirt on the trip home. Reusable garment bags are a good middle ground alternative.

Do plastic dry cleaning bags contain BPA or phthalates?

Unlikely. Polypropylene and polyethylene bags do not require plasticizers which contain these chemicals. Testing has not revealed their presence.

Is it safe to reuse dry cleaning bags at home?

Yes, reusing bags repeatedly at home is safe and reduces waste. Avoid direct contact with any solvent residue inside bags before airing them out.

Can I put dry cleaning bags in my curbside recycling?

Unfortunately most curbside programs do not accept plastic film or bags because they jam equipment. Check with your local recycling provider. Specialty drop-offs may accept cleaner bags.

How can I convince my dry cleaner to use less plastic?

Express your concerns and preferences, and ask if they offer reusable bags or other alternatives. Let them know you would transfer business to an eco-friendly cleaner.

Should I feel guilty about generating plastic waste?

No, the waste problem is not the consumers’ fault. You can make progressive choices when available, while pressuring industry and government to drive change.

Are there any health risks if my child plays with dry cleaning bags?

Minimal risks, but do not let them mouthing or chewing on bags. Avoid saving heavily used bags for kids’ games. Newer or lightly used bags pose negligible chemical exposure risks during play.

The Future of Dry Cleaner Waste and Plastics

Public awareness of environmental issues is putting increasing pressure on the dry cleaning industry to reduce plastic waste. Here are some positive signs of progress:

  • New bioplastic materials are gaining market share as bag alternatives
  • Reusable garment bags are becoming a popular choice
  • More retailers are participating in plastic film recycling programs
  • Some cleaners are switching to zero-bag “naked” cleaning methods
  • Major brands are pledging sustainability initiatives and waste reduction goals
  • Consumers are choosing greener dry cleaning options when available
  • Regulations on single-use plastics may accelerate reductions
  • New packaging technologies could displace need for bags entirely

While change takes time, the trajectory is clearly towards a reduced reliance on single-use plastic dry cleaning bags. Smarter materials, improved recycling, and reusable systems can maintain garment protection while eliminating waste and pollution. By making informed choices, we as consumers can positively influence the industry to accelerate this progress.


Plastic dry cleaning bags keep our clothes neat and lint-free, but also contribute to an enormous plastics wastepaper problem each year. However, there are increasing alternatives available to the single-use polyethylene and polypropylene bag model. With growing public demand for sustainability, the dry cleaning industry is stepping up with greener options that retain both functionality and environmental responsibility. Although systemic change takes time, the encouraging progress demonstrates that our society can come together and forge innovative solutions to these types of environmental challenges.