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August 8, 2007

BioBags vs. Plastic Bags: A Continuing Debate

 

In response to yesterday’s post on Eco-runners collecting litter in BioBags, an anonymous commenter had this to say:

If you’re planning on landfilling non-reusable, non-recyclable materials, there really isn’t any point in using compostable bags to do it in. Organic material doesn’t compost or properly biodegrade in landfills. It breaks down anaerobically, producing methane.

It would probably better to reuse one of those pernicious plastic shopping bags, which would ensure that its marine-life killing career would be diverted to a landfill and save the biodegradable, compostable bags for an application that will actually result in their decomposition (like collecting compostable waste) instead of just making us feel better.

I responded with a comment of my own, but I’d like to expand on the issue with a few more thoughts on why using biodegradable bags for garbage is preferable to using plastic grocery bags.

Plastic grocery bags are made from polyethylene. As far as I can tell, polyethylene has not been shown to leach toxins like other plastics, but that fact alone does not make it a good candidate for the landfill. Polyethylene is made from ethylene gas derived from nonrenewable natural gas or crude oil. And once made, it doesn’t go away. Like all petroleum-based plastics, polyethylene will last many human lifetimes without biodegrading, whether we put it in a landfill or leave it out in the rain.

What is the point of extracting a non-renewable, super long-lasting resource only to use it once and throw it away? Disposable products are a ridulous waste of such a potentially useful material. The commenter suggests that we can divert plastic bags from our waterways by burying them in landfills. I have a better idea.

We should be reusing and recycling the plastic bags that currently exist. And by recycling, I don’t mean creating new disposable plastic bags from old ones. While doing so might prolong their life a little bit, it’s a short-sighted solution at best. There are currently markets for creating lumber out of the resin derived from plastic bags. Let’s take that increasingly scarce material and build things that are meant to last. That’s the best way to keep them out of the mouths of sea turtles.

And as for biodegradable bags not composting in a landfill, that may be true. But plastic bags certainly will not. And whereas petroleum-based plastic is a non-renewable resource, organic materials such as corn and sugar are grown and harvested in a season.

Now, I am not suggesting that because we can create bags and other disposables from organic materials, we should continue our mass consumption of disposable products. Growing field crops takes its own toll on the earth. I believe that we still need to reduce our waste as much as possible.

But in terms of eco-running, which is the context in which this discussion began, picking up litter on the street requires some kind of container. And if the street sweeper is not doing it, and if the only people who care about collecting the plastic waste before it enters storm drains and does its damage are a few idealistic runners with bags, then let those bags be made from renewable, biodegradable materials and save the petroleum for the long haul.
 



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10 comments
Collins Pt.
Collins Pt.

Biodegradable plastic and packaging is a modern necessity for our ever-endangered environment. Now PLA has been used to line the indoors of Paper Cups in place of the oil based lining additional usually used, create Plastic Cups, Plates, Carrier Bags, Food Packaging and even Nappies. Eco Pure is our proprietary blend of organic materials that does not modify the base resin to which it is added. Thanks a lot for your information

sheryl
sheryl

This is just the information I've been looking for - thanks! I've been using Bio Bags for some time now but read this story about corn plastic: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/10022381.html and some other information from the National Academy of Sciences about biofuels and ... dilemma. I've been reducing my use of plastics every way I can think of and buying only 1 and 2 if I have to buy it, and using cloth bags for ALL my shopping including take-out vegan food, etc. Then I saw the recycled plastic trash bags and wondered which was the better use of energy resources and started searching for information and that's how I found your blog. Thank you for a very informative discussion.Sheryl

Jessica at Bwlchyrhyd
Jessica at Bwlchyrhyd

Hi -- not sure that this is the best place to put this but couldn't figure out how to send you an email directly, so... Somebody told me about d2w degradable plastics -- and I have been over their web site with a fine tooth comb and cannot for the life of me work out what is left after the plastic still degrades -- as best as I can tell, you're still left with small pieces of plastic. Am I missing something -- is this a product to be avoided?

Amy
Amy

I'm with "anonymous radical garbage man" on this one. I use New York Times bags from co-workers for my cat litter. They're not recyclable in my area. It makes more sense to me to re-use something, than to throw it away and buy a biodegradable replacement.On the other hand, if I were buying, say, kitchen trash bags, I see value in buying degradable rather than non-degradable bags.

terrible person
terrible person

I heard this story (scroll down a little to see it) on disposal of toxic household waste in California. A lot of it goes into landfills, whence toxic gases leak into the atmosphere and nasty liquids into the groundwater.There's a homemade ice cream company in New York, called Five Boroughs, which has a chunky flavor called "Staten Island Landfill". The Borough President was upset about this.If we keep filling up our landfills, we'll have a situation like that in the movie "Idiocracy". In some countries, like the Philippines and Mexico, large numbers of people live on landfills, scavenging.I'm afraid that ants or other crawly creatures will ingest the chemicals in landfills and turn into giant mutant crawly creatures.

Beth in the Fake Plastic Fish Tank
Beth in the Fake Plastic Fish Tank

Hi again Anonymous. I appreciate your detailed and thoughtful posts, and agree with just about everything you say. I just need to clarify one point:>>petroleum and other fossil fuels used to produce fertilizer to grow crops are no more renewable than petroleum used to make bagsI totally agree with you! I am not promoting the use of fossil fuels in order to grow the corn for the bags. That is not the "long haul" I'm referring to. I'm talking about using it in lumber and other construction in order to create objects that will last a long time since that's one of plastic's defining characteristics.I don't think plastic is inherently evil. Oil extraction, production of virgin plastics, and the creation of disposable products are problematic. But I think we can do more productive things with the plastic that already exists than put it in a landfill. It can be put to use for us by recycling it after we have used it completely for its original purpose.And yes, I know that we currently use fossil fuels to grow corn. That's what I meant about farming taking its toll. I'd like to see better methods of farming used and the reduction or elimination of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides. I don't think those are renewable practices either.

Anonymous
Anonymous

We all have our own theories about what's best here. (Personally, my garbage bags are the few plastic bags that still creep into my house, bags from packaging, etc., because I think it makes most sense to use something that's already been produced. If I ever run out, I will happily buy something fully compostable.) My only concern is with the comment "then let those bags be made from renewable, biodegradable materials and save the petroleum for the long haul" -- petroleum and other fossil fuels used to produce fertilizer to grow crops are no more renewable than petroleum used to make bags. You can easily make the argument that in our perverse country that corn is going to be grown anyway, so we might as well use it to make bags or fuel , and you would probably be right. But that doesn't change the fact that the renewable bag takes a lot of non-renewable resources, which I'm sure you know. Just a point of clarification!

Pfeng
Pfeng

I think the key thing to concentrate on in the biodegradable vs. not debate is "renewable" -- whether or not the bag is capable of disintegrating in its final resting place is irrelevant, whether it is made from a renewable resource is important since it will not be reused.Good thoughts. More motivation for me to buy BioBags for all sorts of purposes.

Anonymous
Anonymous

What is the point of extracting a non-renewable, super long-lasting resource only to use it once and throw it away? Disposable products are a ridulous waste of such a potentially useful material. The commenter suggests that we can divert plastic bags from our waterways by burying them in landfills. I have a better idea.I don't WANT us to be landfilling plastic bags. I don't want us to be manufacturing another plastic bag ever again. In fact, I'd like for us to not have landfills at all and make everyone responsible for the waste they produce. I'm suggesting that if you're going to be sending something to a landfill anyway, where it won't properly break down (at all, in the case of plastic; into useful bionutrients in the case of the corn bag), why not put the worst offender there.This is part of developing a waste management hierarchy and the debate over which disposable bag to throw in a landfill is pretty low on the hierarchy. You're asking all the right questions when you point out that we shouldn't be producing disposables at all. That's the very best solution: no disposable bags to landfill at all! Given that there is very clearly a lot of waste material, recyclable and not, plastic and otherwise, littering our streets and endangering our waterways, I suggest that inasmuch possible we reuse it and then recycle it. It sound like you're looking at creative ways to work with the materials you're picking up, which is great. It also sounds like you're figuring out what can be recycled and making sure it happens: also great. All I'm saying is that it isn't like there aren't billions of those evil little grocery bags blowing around the planet as litter already to be able to pick those up and use them as garbage bags. When I get a virgin plastic bag (or even a lightly used one) through inattentiveness (forgetting to tell the farmer that I don't need a bag for my potatoes other than my cloth tote) or on the rare occasion in which I do need something to keep something fresh and forgot to bring one from home, I use the crap out of them. They're not ready to be tossed until they have dutifully carried produce for weeks and there are holes or tears or something actually soils them in a not-easy-to-clean way. THEN they enclose refuse bound for the landfill.This approach shows the steps of a good waste management hierarchy, in this case:1. Reduction -- by refusing new bags, I'm preventing the need to handle them as waste later on2. Reuse in original form -- requires no energy, time or money to reuse a bag as a bag3. Reuse in alternate form -- o.k. a close distinction in this case, but I'm counting the transformation from reusable produce bag to disposable refuse bag as a "different" form of bag(Note: here are where recycling, composting and waste to energy reclamation would come in)4. Containment of waste: (landfilling)Now, if we've been diligent enough about the earlier steps, we should have reduced the waste stream significantly by the time we've reached the city dump with our little bag. Along the way, we built home composting bins where your bags are safely returning their chemicals to the earth. My bag, which is now, has always been and always will be, poison is going to be disposed of in a managed site, which you correctly point out IS allowed a specific level of leachate, but which is monitored, regulated and for which operators must make financial assurances that they can fund a cleanup if needed.Plastic is poison; landfills represent a failure in waste management.But when we find ourselves entering the waste management stream low on the hierarchy, we just have to do the best we can and minimize the damage.Keep using the corn bags! Just remember that they are worthy of a better fate than a landfill. -An anonymous radical garbage man

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